Mary Beth Keane made an audacious choice in writing Fever, a novel about Mary Mallon, known as “Typhoid Mary.” By letting Mallon speak about her life from 1899 until shortly before her death in 1938, Keane has given us a window into a life circumscribed not just because of disease, but also because of prejudices about class and national origin, ignorance and fear, and one man’s eagerness to make a name for himself.
Irish immigrant Mary Mallon was an especially good cook, clever and versatile, and armed with skill and drive, she had found work with a series of wealthy New York families. For many years, as Keene tells it, Mallon had lived relatively happily with a German immigrant named Alfred Briehof, who worked hard—when he wasn’t drinking. But Mallon’s life changed in 1907, when Dr. Soper, an ambitious sanitation-department engineer, had her taken into custody and transferred to North Brother Island, the site of a tuberculosis hospital in the middle of the East River. Mallon did not have TB, nor had she ever had any significant illness, but because 23 of the hundreds of people for whom she had cooked had contracted typhoid, Soper was convinced that Mallon was a “healthy carrier” of the disease. Mallon spent years living alone in a hut on the island, isolated from her lover and her friends and required to submit regular specimens of urine, stool, and blood for analysis. (Sometimes she tested positive, sometimes she did not.) At first, believing that typhoid was manufactured by the gallbladder, the medical staff tried to convince Mallon to agree to surgery, but they withdrew their pressure after that theory fell out of fashion. She was held for over two years before being granted a hearing, after which she was released on condition that she not cook, but the boredom and drudgery of the work she could find drove her back into the kitchen, cooking first for friends and then for paying customers, and she was again captured and returned to North Brother, where she lived the rest of her life.
Keane’s focus is larger than Mary Mallon’s plight, and by including contemporary events—the Triangle factory fire, the sinking of the Titanic—and painting a picture of the crowding, filth, poverty, and desperation of New York City’s lower-class immigrant neighborhoods, she places Mallon in a context that helps explain her actions. At times, this means that the plot meanders, but never for long. And Fever is not merely a historical novel; it is a timely and thought-provoking book. We live in a world where at least theoretically an epidemic can sweep the globe before the cause can be pinpointed. We live in a time when individuals are incarcerated, without a hearing, purportedly to protect the larger community. In her portrait of Mary Mallon, Keane has given us a picture of a woman who might be very much like us.