Thursday, April 11, 2013

REVIEW: Fever by Mary Beth Keane

Synopsis (from Amazon):  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. The Department of Health sent Mallon to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910, then released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—proud of her former status and passionate about cooking—the alternatives were abhorrent. She defied the edict. 

My Thoughts: Many of us have heard the name Typhoid Mary without giving much thought to the actual person she was.  In Fever Keane does a fine job of giving us a glimpse of the woman who was the first known "healthy" carrier of typhoid in the United States. Having emigrated from Ireland to the United States in her teens, Mary starts at the lower rung of domestic jobs as a laundress but due to the timely illness of  a cook in the household she works for, Mary is able to move into the kitchens and do what she loves most-cook.  Unfortunately for Mary her love of preparing food for other people is what gets her in trouble as she seemingly every  household she comes in contact with has a typhoid outbreak, sometimes with devastating consequences.

Mary is an interesting character and I admired her spirit.  She is a fighter who believes she is the victim of injustice and refuses to just give in.  That is also the problem as Mary has deluded herself into believing that she can't possibly be responsible for all those people being sick.  I can understand her disdain for Dr. Soper the "sanitation engineer" who realized that the issue in these households was probably Mary and was responsible for her isolation at North Brother Island.  The man looks at her as something to be poked and prodded and probably would have received a more favorable response from Mary had he showed a modicum of sympathy towards her.  Soper is the lurking presence Mary must constantly be wary of as she stubbornly defies the edict to never cook again.  At times I found myself having trouble sympathizing with Mary because of her actions but her regret over the death by typhoid fever of a little boy she cared a great deal about in an earlier household she worked for touched me.

The novels strong point is that it does a wonderful job of immersing you in turn of the century immigrant life in New York City.   The author really does make the city come alive.  What I didn't care for in this book was the beginning seemed kind of abrupt to me.  There was no build up in learning who Mary was or painting a background story.  The reader is plunged almost immediately into the typhoid outbreak and Mary's subsequent capture.  While more of Mary's earlier life is given later in the novel , the way it moved back and forth through Mary's life made it seem a bit disordered to me and seemed like it would have read better if her story was given in the order it happened.  I did like this book and would suggest it to historical fiction lovers.  Even though I had a few issues while reading, I liked being able to picture the real woman behind the Typhoid Mary Moniker.

While I usually don't link to other people's reviews, check out this review for Fever written by a guy on Goodreads.  He does a great job and totally blows this review out of the water. :)

 I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

1 comment:

  1. I love historical fiction -- I have this on my goodreads list -- hope to get to it soon!
    The review you linked is amazing! :)