I always know when an historical novel is exceptionally well done because it pushes me to learn more about the subject on my own, and such was the case with Mary Beth Keane’s excellent novel about Typhoid Mary, Fever. Upon closing this book, I immediately needed to know more about Mary Mallon and her tragic circumstances brought so brilliantly to life more than a hundred years later.
In 1906, Irish immigrant Mallon was traced as the potential source of typhoid outbreaks, though she herself had never been ill with the disease. Taken forcibly by health officials, Mary was what was known as an asymptomatic carrier; many of the families for whom she cooked became victims of the disease, though fewer than the horrific numbers often attributed to her. Mary was kept in confinement on North Brother Island in New York for more than three years until a lawyer won her freedom based on her agreement not to work as a cook again. Headstrong Mary agreed and tried to return to life as she knew it, but her unmarried lover had strayed, and her inability to cook took its toll on her spirit. Unable to resist, Mary eventually returned to the world she loved best, and therein lay her ultimate downfall.
Fever is so well written and does such a brilliant job of getting inside the head of Mary Mallon that I was hooked within the first few pages. Keane takes the facts and spins a probable life in such a way that one cannot help but cheer Mary on despite the knowledge that she carried potential death with her at all times. Looking back on Typhoid Mary a century later, Keane has given her the justice that eluded her during her lifetime. Highly recommended.