Mary Beth Keane
release date: March 2013
Mary Mallon, the main character in Mary Beth Keane’s soon-to-be-released novel, is known to most of us as Typhoid Mary, thought to be the first asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in the United States. Mary left a wake of illness and death as she moved from family to family, serving in wealthy New York households. Eventually, health department worker Dr. George Soper (a “sanitation engineer”–how ominous does that sound?) follows the patterns of outbreaks and convinces the City she must be arrested and housed in a TB hospital outside the city on the East River. [Adding a bit of real-life drama to my reading of Fever, I finished the novel while recovering from being a participant in the Great Flu Epidemic of 2013. I had my own literal fever and the accompanying fears of spreading what is a nasty, nasty bug.]
Mary Mallon was, at times, willful and outspoken. Those qualities served her well as she quickly made her way in service from laundress to head cook at a young age, but worked against her when she defied convention and social customs. She lived with her companion Alfred without being married; she lied her way into her first job as cook. And her violent outbursts when captured were the thing of headlines: “‘Typhoid Mary’ Most Harmless and Yet the Most Dangerous Woman in America”.
Known also as Germ Woman, Mary was held two times on North Brother Island. During her first isolation she sought legal help and won release on the condition that she never cook for hire again. Unfortunately, the joy of cooking proved too hard to resist and Mary found a job as cook at a maternity hospital and a New York bakery where she worked under the name Mary Brown. Caught again, Mary was housed in a small clapboard cottage until her death at age sixty-nine.
Keane created a sympathetic character in Mary: she was smart and headstrong. I was puzzled, however, that one so intelligent could be so obstinate: Mary repeatedly denied to her jailers, the public, and herself that she was a carrier, saying, “I’ve never been sick a day in my life.” I also felt the integrity of the novel was shaken by the addition of Alfred’s own “fevers” in the last few chapters–his fever for Mary, alcohol, and finally heroin. That might have been the author’s attempt to create a grand sweep of a novel, but story was always Mary’s–and she was grand enough to carry it on her own.