For the past week, I've been suffering from the most horrendous cold and cough, just like the rest of America. Strangely enough, the book I have been reading dealt with a subject that made me glad that all I had was a cold.
'Fever', written by Mary Beth Keane, the author of the extraordinary 'The Walking People', is not a run-of-the-mill historical novel. It delves into the tragic case of Mary Mallon, a.k.a. 'Typhoid Mary', an Irish immigrant with a talent for cooking. The first known healthy carrier of typhoid fever, Mary came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, ignorant of the danger she posed.
Cooking for upscale families and determined to rise above, Mary unwittingly spread typhoid among the members of the households; some survived, some died. But as the bodies piled up, one enterprising and ruthless 'medical engineer' hunted her down and placed her in quarantine at North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910. After her release, she was banned from ever cooking again. But, as history teaches us, she defied the edict.
The facts are in the public record, but Ms. Keane takes Mary's story a bit further. Exploring Mary's life in a more humane way, the author brings to the reader's imagination the terror and guilt Mary felt every day of her life. But the burden of guilt could not keep Mary away from the job she loved the most: Cooking. After her release from quarantine, Mary became a laundress, a job she considered well beneath her. But the temptation to cook grew too great, and under assumed names, she worked in a bakery and a hospital.
I was mesmerized by the retelling of Mary's story, especially so when I read about the relationship between her and her lover, Alfred, who was quite a tragic figure, himself.
Early 20th century New York is brought to vivid life in this compelling story of a dynamic woman who just couldn't stop herself from following her dreams at the expense of human life.
Mary Beth Keane, an award-winning author, was chosen as one of the '5 Under 35' by the National Book Foundation. 'Fever', her newest offering, will be published in March 2013 by Scribner.