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Fever by Mary B Keane
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Fever (original 2013; edition 2013)

by Mary B Keane

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4335324,328 (3.77)32
Member:JGoto
Title:Fever
Authors:Mary B Keane
Info:Scribner (2013), Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Collections:NetGalley, Your library
Rating:****
Tags:Historical Novel, Typhoid Mary

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Fever by Mary Beth Keane (2013)

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I grew up hearing the cautionary tale of Typhoid Mary, who was mostly mentioned within hearing range in combination with an admonition to wash your hands. But some people (mainly other children) told tales of her purposefully infecting those she served. These sentences were spoken with a combination of fear and awe. On the one hand, how understandable at a time when worker’s rights were nearly completely absent and to be both a woman and Irish in America was not a good combination. On the other hand, how evil to poison people with such a heinous illness in their food. In any case, when this fictionalized account of Mary Mallon came up, I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman anyway? It turns out, the mixture of awe and fear reflected in myself and other children was actually fairly accurate.

I’m going to speak first about the actual Mary Mallon and then about the writing of the book. If you’re looking for the perfect example of gray area and no easy answers mixed with unfair treatment based on gender and nation of origin, then hoo boy do you find one with Mary Mallon. The early 1900s was early germ theory, and honestly, when you think about it, germ theory sounds nuts if you don’t grow up with it. You can carry invisible creatures on your skin and in your saliva that can make other people but not yourself sick. Remember, people didn’t grow up knowing about germs. It was an entirely new theory. The status quo was don’t cook while you’re sick, and hygiene was abysmally low…basically everywhere. It’s easy to understand how Mary was accidentally spreading sickness and didn’t know it. It’s also easy to understand why she would have fought at being arrested (she did nothing malicious or wrong and was afraid of the police). Much as we may say now that she should have known enough to wash her hands frequently. Wellll, maybe not so much back then.

Public health officials said that they tried to reason with Mary, and she refused to stop cooking or believe that she was infecting others. This is why they quarantined her on North Brother Island. Some point to others (male, higher social status) who were found to be asymptomatic carriers who were not quarantined. True. But they also acknowledged the risk and agreed to stop doing whatever it was that was spreading the illness. Maybe Mary was more resistant because of the prejudice she was treated with from the beginning. Or maybe she really was too stubborn to be able to understand what a real risk she posed to others. Regardless, it is my opinion that no matter the extraneous social factors (being a laundress is more difficult than being a cook, people were overly harsh with her, etc…) Mary still knowingly cooked and infected people after she was released from North Brother Island. Yes, there were better ways public health officials could have handled the whole situation but that’s still an evil thing to do. So that’s the real story of Mary Mallon. Now, on to the fictional account (and here you’ll see why I bothered discussing the facts first).

At first Keane does a good job humanizing a person who has been extremely demonized in American pop culture. Time and effort is put into establishing Mary’s life and hopes. Effort is made into showing how she may not have noticed typhoid following her wherever she went. She emigrated from Ireland. She, to put it simply, saw a lot of shit. A lot of people got sick and died. That was just life. I also liked how the author showed the ways in which Mallon was contrarian to what was expected of women. She didn’t marry. She was opinionated and sometimes accused of not dressing femininely enough. But, unfortunately, that’s where my appreciation fo the author’s handling of Mallon ends.

The author found it necessary to give Mallon a live-in, alcoholic boyfriend who gets almost as much page time as herself. In a book that should be about Mary, he gets entirely too much time, and that hurts the plot. (There is seriously a whole section about him going to Minnesota that is entirely pointless). A lot of Mary’s decisions are blamed on this boyfriend. While I get it that shitty relationships can cause you to make shitty decisions, at a certain point accountability comes into play. No one held a gun to Mary’s head and made her cook or made her date this man (I couldn’t find any records to support this whole alcoholic boyfriend, btw).

On a similar note, a lot of effort is made into blaming literally everyone but Mary for the situation. It’s society’s fault. It’s culture’s fault. It’s Dr. Soper’s fault. They should have rehabbed her with a new job that was more comparable to cooking than being a laundress. They should have had more empathy. Blah blah blah. Yes. In a perfect world they would have realized how backbreaking being a laundress is and trained her in something else. But, my god, in the early 1900s they released her and found her a job in another career field. That’s a lot for that time period! This is the early days of public health. The fact that anyone even considered finding her a new career is kind of amazing. And while I value and understand the impact society and culture and others have on the individual’s ability to make good and moral decisions, I still believe ultimately the individual is morally responsible. And at some point, Mary, with all of her knowledge of the fact that if she cooked there was a high probability someone would die, decided to go and cook anyway. And she didn’t cook just anywhere. She cooked at a maternity ward in a hospital. So the fact that the book spends a lot of time trying to remove all personal culpability from Mary bothered me a lot.

I’m still glad I read the book, but I sort of wish I’d just read the interesting articles and watched the PBS special about her instead. It would have taken less time and been just as factual.

Check out my full review.

*initial thoughts*
I'm really torn on how to rate this one. I think I'd realistically give it 3.5 stars. I'm going to skew down toward 3 because I feel like in general it's skewing higher than that in overall ratings.

Essentially, I thought the writing was good and interesting. I appreciate the author trying to give thought to the motivations behind what Mary did and not demonizing her. But I think she skewed too far the other way.

I didn't like:
1) How much we're clearly supposed to believe Mary was mostly not at fault. There's a lot of blaming the other (society, culture, Dr. Soper, her boyfriend, etc...) when honestly I think there's a lot of personal responsibility here, at least for the second cooking instances after Mary was alerted to her healthy carrier status.
2) How much book time and attention was given to her shitty-ass boyfriend. (Seriously, there's a whole section about his life in Minnesota that was totally pointless).
3) How the book seems to make it be that Mary's bad relationship was to blame for everything. Not Mary herself. ( )
  gaialover | Aug 1, 2016 |
This is quite a good, realistic historical fiction novel and navigates all the complexities of the "Typhoid Mary" situation well. I certainly recommend it if you have any interest in turn-of-the-last-century New York, the "Typhoid Mary" situation, the story of immigrants in the early 20th century, or anything else of that nature. ( )
  Caitlin70433 | Jun 6, 2016 |
This was a pretty interesting book about a subject i knew fairly little about... I recommend it to those looking to explore a dark part of history. ( )
  Shadowling | Jun 6, 2016 |
This is a fictionalized account of Mary Mallon, an Irish cook in the late 1800's, early 1900's, who was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, and supposedly had infected many people for whom she cooked. It deals with the almost inhumane way she was treated in the effort to keep her isolated from society. It is also a story of the ignorance of an era when little was known of disease or how it was spread. The story is a well written fiction account of the possible trials and struggles of this unfortunate woman. It was an interesting read. ( )
  readyreader | Jun 1, 2016 |
This was very interesting and thought provoking. I love books that teach me alot while giving me a story to digest. Well written -- Mary is thoroughly believable as the character that she must have been, as is the man who is essentially her common law husband. Can you imagine being told that you are a disease carrier, so many have died because of you, and in a time when many didn't have much training, told that you can't do your job, the special job you are good at? Can you imagine being basically imprisoned without a trial? Can you imagine wondering, but not being really convinced, that you were responsible for many, many deaths? This book helped me really imagine all of that. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
Keane evokes the atmosphere of the bustling and booming New York of the time to life as she details both Mary’s day-to-day life and the work of “sanitation engineer” Dr. George Soper, who uses basic detective work and the scientific method to trace the infections back to her. It’s this “one-two punch” the makes the novel so compelling.
added by KelMunger | editLit/Rant, Kel Munger (Jun 11, 2013)
 
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Epigraph
"Jesus Mercy"
--Mary Mallon's headstone
St. Raymond's Cemetery
Bronx, New York
Dedication
TO MARTY
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The day began with sour milk and got worse. (Prologue)
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Book description
Mary Mallon was a brave, headstrong Irish immigrant woman who journeyed alone to America, fought hard to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder, and discovered in herself an uncanny and coveted talent for cooking. Working in the kitchens of the upper class, she left a trail of disease in her wake, until one enterprising and ruthless "medical engineer" proposed the inconceivable notion of the "asymptomatic carrier". From then on, Mary Mallon was a hunted woman.

In order to keep New York's citizens safe from Mallon, the Department of Health sent her to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910. She was released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary - spoiled by her former status and income and genuinely passionate about cooking - most domestic and factory jobs were abhorrent. She defied the edict.
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On the eve of the twentieth century, Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to make her way in New York City. Brave, headstrong, and dreaming of being a cook, she fought to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder. Canny and enterprising, she worked her way to the kitchen, and discovered in herself the true talent of a chef. Sought after by New York aristocracy, and with an independence rare for a woman of the time, she seemed to have achieved the life she'd aimed for when she arrived in Castle Garden. Then one determined "medical engineer" noticed that she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked, and identified her as an "asymptomatic carrier" of Typhoid Fever. With this seemingly preposterous theory, he made Mallon a hunted woman.… (more)

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