Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane



Title: Fever

Author: Mary Beth Keane

Published: Simon and Schuster AU March 2013

Status: Read from March 27 to 28, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy Simon and Schuster AU}

My Thoughts:

Fever is a fascinating novel that mixes historical fact and a fictional narrative to tell the tale of ‘Typhoid Mary’, the woman held responsible for several deadly outbreaks of the disease in the US around the turn of the nineteenth century.

In 1907, Mary Mallon was arrested at the direction of the Department of Health. A forty year old, unmarried, Irish immigrant cook she stood accused of spreading Typhoid, a bacterial disease transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person, among the New York households she worked for over a period of several years. Her role was identified by Dr George Soper, a health researcher who discovered that Mary was the link between outbreaks, despite the fact she remained asymptomatic. Mary felt victimised by the state who tried to force her to have surgery to remove her gallbladder (thought at the time to be the host of the disease) and when that failed exiled her to North Brother Island, a Quarantine hospital in the middle of the East River where she eventually spent over 30 years in isolation until her death in 1938.

There was little sympathy at the time for Mary Mallon, who caused the illness of as many as 50 persons, the death of three and likely more. Mary Beth Keane attempts to humanise Typhoid Mary in this novel and illustrate the possible thought process of the woman accused of willfully spreading deadly disease. I am familiar with only the basics of the case (see Wikipedia for an outline) so I am not sure where exactly Keane’s imagination merges with known facts but the author brings some balance to the prevailing view of the ‘evil’ woman who fought the Health Deapartment every step of the way, and later flaunted their decree she was never to cook again.

Mary does prove to be a sympathetic character in Fever, even though she has a temper and a tendency to make poor decisions. Keane focuses on the period between Mary’s arrest and her second period of exile, sharing the details of Mary’s ordinary day to day life with her common law relationship with Alfred Breihof, a feckless drunk who was often unemployed. Personally I found the chapters focusing on her relationship, or following Alfred, a distraction from Mary’s story though it does add depth to her character. Still, I was far more intrigued by Mary’s reaction to her vilification as Typhoid Mary. It’s understandable that Mary would find it difficult to believe Dr Soper’s claims that she was the cause of Typhoid outbreaks, especially given it was a common disease whose cause and mode of transmission was unknown. Accused of creating a trail of illness and death Mary fought the medical establishment, dodging the Dr Soper, refusing testing and denying her culpability. It is also clear that Mary was victimised by the Health Department which took advantage of her status to impose unreasonable demands on her. Despite several larger outbreaks being traced to other asymptomatic carriers soon after Mary’s arrest, she was the only one arrested and forcibly exiled, mainly it seems because the other identified carriers were men with family and money, who could not be as easily bullied.

Mary’s case raises interesting moral and ethical questions about public health and safety, asking for example, if the rights of one individual outweigh the safety of many. It is also a fascinating glimpse of medical knowledge and sanitation in the early 1900’s. Remarkably most of the cases of Typhoid fever could have been avoided with the simple act of hand washing.
Fever is also a vivid portrait of New York City at the turn of the century and particularly of the lifestyle of the ‘servant’ class. From streets heaped with garbage to rooms crowded with tenants, basic hygiene and sanitation was practically non existent, encouraging diseases that could have been easily eradicated.

The provocative tale of an enigmatic historical figure, Fever is a compelling read. Keane skillfully infuses historical fact with imagined personality to creating an entertaining and intriguing tale which should appeal to a wide audience.

Available To Purchase

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mystica
    Mar 04, 2013 @ 01:13:57

    I had heard about Typhoid Mary. Did not know there was a book about her though.



  2. Kat (AussieZombie) (@katlb82)
    Mar 04, 2013 @ 01:17:23

    Ah I have this one to read soon – it sounds absolutely fascinating!



  3. Melissa Wray
    Mar 05, 2013 @ 22:40:12

    This sounds really interesting. Thanks for the review!



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