You probably don’t know who Mary Mallon is but I bet you have at least heard of Typhoid Mary. Mary Beth Keane’s novel Fever aims to tell Mary Mallon’s story.
Mallon was an Irish immigrant. She came to the United States as a girl. She lived with her aunt and took work in service. She began doing laundry but, already having some skill at cooking, soon learned enough to become a very good and in demand cook for rich families. At seventeen she met Alfred Briehof, a German immigrant and they moved in together, living happily (more or less since Alfred was an alcoholic) for years unmarried. In March 1907 she was taken into custody by the Department of Health and held in a New York Hospital while doctors did tests. Mallon became identified as the first healthy carrier of typhoid and people who ate her cooking were in danger of coming down with it.
Not everyone became ill who ate Mallon’s cooking but there was enough of a trail that the DOH found her. She never had typhoid but she carried the bacilli in her body. The doctors had no idea how this was possible. They decided she was too much of a threat to allow her freedom so they moved her to North Brother Island, a quarantine hospital for tuberculosis and other diseases off the coast of Manhattan. She was not allowed visitors and she was forced to submit to frequent humiliating tests.
Mallon was not a retiring and compliant woman. She was angry and combative. Doctors thought she should willingly do whatever they wanted her to and not complain but Mallon had other ideas. When she finally found a lawyer who would help her and got a court hearing, her uncooperativeness would come back to haunt her. She was denied release.
Eventually she did attain her freedom when other healthy carriers were found. None of these people were forced into quarantine. One of them, a dairy farmer, was allowed to continue working on his farm he just couldn’t come into contact with the milk. At this news, Mallon’s lawyer once again pursued her release and this time obtained it under the condition that Mallon never cook for anyone again and check in with the DOH every three months when she was also required to provide bodily fluid samples for the doctors.
She was given a job at a Chinese laundry, a huge step down in status and wages from what she had obtained from her skill as a cook. Working in a laundry day after day is back breaking and exhausting work and Mary was desperate for something else but there was no other work for her besides the cooking she was not allowed to do.
She kept her promise not to cook for as long as she could but eventually broke it, taking work at a bakery. She got caught, escaped, went into hiding. Eventually she got work again as a cook in a maternity hospital by using a fake name. The pay was good, she loved the work and things seemed to be going pretty well. Until typhoid broke out at the hospital. This time she was not able to escape. She was taken back to North Brother Island where she lived out the rest of her life as a “guest” of New York City.
Mallon’s is a fascinating story and I will never joke about Typhoid Mary again. Unfortunately the book could have been so much better. There were good parts though. It is a question whether Mallon knew in the beginning that she made people ill. And then later, whether she understood about her condition. Mallon often questions whether what the doctors told her is true especially since most people who ate her food didn’t get sick.
Then there is the uppity female thread. It does seem likely that she was treated the way she was because she was a woman. It was also clear the city did not understand what it meant for Mallon to not be able to work as a cook anymore. She had to earn her living, she and Alfred spilt for some time and even when they were together Alfred couldn’t keep regular work because of his alcoholism. Working at a laundry she had barely enough to get by and she knew the work would eventually wear her down physically to the point she would no longer be able to work at all. She did not have a man to take care of her and it seems like the city assumed that she should in placing her in such a difficult position.
But in spite of all these interesting things, the book was far too long at only 304 pages. Less than halfway through the book it felt like the best part of the story was over and there was a very long and very saggy and dull middle in which I kept wondering why I was still reading. Part of the trouble is that the middle of the book turns into a love story. Or it tries to. Mallon and Alfred together and not together. They still love each other but can Alfred quite drinking? And it just went on and on. Finally, when Mallon gets caught at the maternity hospital it gets interesting again but by that point it is too late to recover and the book comes to a limping conclusion.
Fever is not a terrible book, but it is flawed. There are good bits and not so good bits and it balances out to be an ok read. I bet it would make a good vacation book when you want an interesting story but something that isn’t mentally taxing, a book you don’t have to pay close attention to. Take that as you will. I read this for my historical fiction MOOC and the author will be making an appearance in class. I suspect she might have some interesting things to say.