Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane

image001 Title: Fever

Author: Mary Beth Keane

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Pages: 320

Format: Advance Copy provided by the publisher via

Release Date: March 12, 2013

About the Book:  (from publisher)
Mary Mallon was a courageous, headstrong Irish immigrant woman who bravely came to America alone, fought hard to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic service ladder, and discovered in herself an uncanny, and coveted, talent for cooking. Working in the kitchens of the upper class, she left a trail of disease in her wake, until one enterprising and ruthless “medical engineer” proposed the inconceivable notion of the “asymptomatic carrier”—and from then on Mary Mallon was a hunted woman.

In order to keep New York’s citizens safe from Mallon, the Department of Health sent her to North Brother Island where she was kept in isolation from 1907-1910. She was released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—spoiled by her status and income and genuinely passionate about cooking—most domestic and factory jobs were heinous. She defied the edict.

Bringing early twentieth-century New York alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the park being carved out of upper Manhattan, the emerging skyscrapers, the boat traffic—Fever is as fiercely compelling as Typhoid Mary herself, an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the hands of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes an extraordinarily dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable character.

Setting: 1906 to 1915 – New York  & North Brother Island





Newspaper Article About Mary – June 20, 1909

Mary at Willard Park Hospital – April 1907

As of 1910, there were an estimated 200,000 to 350,000 new cases of typhoid fever in the United States. Approximately 3% of those sufferers went on to become chronic carriers.

north-brother-island-ny-state-archives Building%20on%20North%20Brother marys_cottage
Mary was quarantined at North Brother Island from 4/15/1907 until 2/19/1910 North Brother Island Hospital Mary’s cottage on North Brother Island in which she lived until her death.   

Image_of_Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_on_March_25_-_1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:  This fire is described as happening while Mary was working at the laundry in New York.   It was such a sad part of the story, that I had to research to see if this had actually happened.   This fire did occur on March 25, 1911.  146 workers were killed in this fire – many jumping to their deaths as the stairwells and exits were locked.   This was a common practice of the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks.

Once again, Mary Beth Keane show remarkable attention to details of the time with her research. 

Mary returned to North Brother Island after the out break of typhoid at Sloane Maternity Hospital, where she was cooking under a false name.  She remained at North Brother Island until her death at the age of 69 on 11/11/38. 


About the Author:
Mary Beth Keane attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35. She lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons.

My ReviewFever by Mary Beth Keane caught my attention on due to the topic, Historical Fiction being a favorite genre of mine.  I knew little to nothing about Typhoid Mary, so I was intrigued.  Fever caught my attention from the very beginning.   I was impressed by the detail that was presented of life in New York and plight of the working class during this period of time.  

Fever is the story of Mary Mallon, the first identified carrier of Typhoid.   She was a talented cook who worked for well to do families.  The fever seems to follow her, leaving illness and death in her wake.  Mary was a very strong character, but in denial of her condition.  This makes a lot of sense as during that time there was just starting to be talk about the details of disease and how it was spread.  There was some misconceptions about the spread of disease as it relates to garbage and the lack of sanitation in New York.  The author attempts to give a voice to the thoughts of Mary and her reasons for continuing to cook after being ordered to stop.   While I believe Mary was in denial to some extent of the illness she was causing, the author gave little suggestions that Mary might have thought in the back of her mind that she might be causing the fever.   Mary was stubborn and very strong, I didn’t like her disregard of others well-being by continuing to cook, especially at the Sloane Maternity Hospital.  

Fever by Mary Beth Keane captured my attention initially, but I did find the 2nd half of the book to be less captivating.  I completed the book as I was interested in knowing how everything turned out.  I wish there was more depth to the story surrounding Mary and her thoughts, reasons and relationships.  The book was fictional so the author could have built more into that part of the story.  Throughout the story Mary has a love interest, Alfred who struggled with employment, drug and drinking issues.  I am not sure how much this relationship added to the story, but it did give some reason for Mary’s decision to return to and continue cooking.

I commend the author, Mary Beth Keane for a very well researched story.   Her detail to the life and times of the early 1900 in New York was remarkable.  I really enjoyed the detail to the setting and the events during that time. 
My Rating:  3.5 – while I did not lose sleep to finish this book – Fever by Mary Beth Keane is very well worth the read!   If you enjoy historical fiction you will be very impressed by Mary Beth Keane’s research and detail!

My Rating Scale: 1 – didn’t like it; 2 – it was ok; 3 – liked it; 4 – really liked it; 5 – it was amazing

Other Reviews of Fever:

Start Tribune
Historical Novel Society


Happy Reading!

**Disclosure – Advance copy of Fever by Mary Beth Keane received from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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