Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Fever by Mary Beth Keane (My Thoughts)

For some reason I have always been attracted to stories around the Great Fires and plagues of the world. I remember reading stories of the great Chicago fire as a child.  

The plagues interest probably came from reading Little Women as a young person.   As a child I was sick a lot and I always seemed to be in bed with a fever or a sore throat on days such as Halloween or Christmas when everyone was having fun.  Though my memories are really wonderful of those times when I'd come down with something.

One year in the 50's I was lying on the couch on a Saturday morning watching shows like Rin Tin Tin, Fury and Sky King and lo and behold my father walked up the front porch steps with an enormous man behind him. They were laughing. My father laughed a lot.  Wouldn't you know it, he went downtown to Grand Ledge Michigan, population about 5500 and brought home Santa Claus.  Santa Claus was in my living room, sitting next to me taking my Christmas order.  If this is what happens when one is sick who would want to be well.  I also remember my wonderful Aunt Evelyn bringing me a box full of small books. They were paperback books and each book was full of puzzles, mazes, paper dolls, things to do, things to read. I never forgot those two very beautiful times of my childhood.

So whenever I read a book about tragedy, and in the 50's and early 60's there seemed to be quite a bit of  history woven into children's reading, probably because penicillin was so new and I remember having spoonfuls of the green chalky liquid with a bit of sugar sprinkled on top of it. That is how penicillin was administered back then.

When I read the blurb about this book, Fever by Mary Beth Keane  it triggered some long forgotten bells.  The book is a fictional account of Typhoid Mary aka Mary Mallon.  A fair haired Irish woman who emigrated to AMerica to live the rest of her life in New York.  Somewhere along the way she had been exposed to Typhoid though never showed symptoms herself.  She was a very good cook and made her living cooking for families in and around the New York area.  She was in a very long term relationship with a man named Alfred.  It was the kind of relationship where they couldn't live with each other yet they couldn't live without each other. Alfred had a drinking problem as did many men in the tenement life of the very early 1900's. The book covers the span of time from approximately late 1890's to WWI with a short afterward of what happened up until her death in 1938.
A photo of the real Mary Mallon

The medical profession had many doctors and researchers trying to unlock the causes of diseases such as typhoid and diptheria. So many families and especially children succumbed to these horrible disease and it wasn't unusual to completely wipe out an entire family or small town.

However Mary would go to the agency and receive her household cooking assignments especially when she and Alfred were arguing and he was drinking a lot. She would ask to be sent farther away so she wouldn't have to see him for months on end and then she'd return to their top floor tenement flat and all would be right with the world. Alfred always refused to marry Mary so of course she was also ostracised quite badly for living with a man in such sin.  She never had children.

When typhoid starting following Mary around the doctors worked out it must be possible to be a carrier of the disease without actually showing signs of the disease itself. Mary refused to believe this and continued to feel it was utter nonsense until quite late in her life.

A particular doctor, Dr. Sope who is made out to be entirely evil researched outbreaks of Typhoid fever cases. He worked out that Mary was a common denominator of the outbreaks of the disease in the New York area.   She was forcibly removed and put into a TB Sanitarium on North Brother Island in the Hudson River in New york.  She stayed there several years.  Mary was always a hot headed Irish woman and everything in her life was accomplished kicking and screaming which also didn't help her cause.   She couldn't understand why she had been singled out for detention when there were others also identified as carriers but weren't locked up. 

She was provided a small bungalow on the island and this is where she lived.  Eventually after being the guinea pig and forcibly having urine and feces samples taken almost daily she was released back into the community.  She always seemed to have a percentage of Typhoid bacillus in her test results though as she couldn't see them she refused to believe it.   The doctors, all being men for the most part were secretive and also never let her know what was happening and refused to share test results and other information with her which also made things worse. She was often referred to as the "Germ Woman" by the media which published much of her story on the front pages of the New York City newspapers.

On top of all of this she is also trying to maintain a relationship with Alfred and find out what is happening in her old community as well as working out legal representation that might free her.

Fever,  although fictionalised appears to follow the true biographical information of Mary Mallon quite well from everything I could find on the net. The tale is fascinating and for one, it makes me eternally grateful all of this research was completed so eventually there is no reason anymore for these disease to occur anymore.

Society has come so far with medical technology and reading this book only reinforces that. It is an excellent book and I enjoyed the writing. The writer is clear, I enjoyed the way she wrote dialogue and I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in this area. Even if you don't it's a good read because it is a tremendous love story if you have no interest in the medical side of it.  Also for those who worry it may be graphic, it isn't really graphic at all. The story is more to do with the way people could be locked up or ostracised for not being married, living together or for having an illness that people didn't understand.  It is also a statement on how little control women had regarding their own health during that time. I would recommend this as a very interesting story.


  1. How horrible to have your freedom and rights taken away - to be in effect imprisoned and subject to medical tests - but then on the other hand, how awful to have this typhoid carrier wandering around spreading the disease, in part because she refused to believe she carried it. Fascinating story - I had no idea! Is it coincidence that one of the verification words was "undertaker" ??

    1. Pure coincidence I promise. Yes, it is such a fascinating story. I guess back in those days people didn't know if they didn't show sign of the disease that they could still be infectious. I had never thought about it but medical ignorance was so widespread. Thanks for dropping by. Always lovely to hear from you. Pam

  2. I've seen this book around and was vaguely interested. Your review has convinced me to read it... off to request from my library. Thank you.

    1. I hope you enjoy it. I think it is an interesting part of American history and American female history. The author brought it to life for me and hope you feel the same way about it.

  3. This sounds like a great read - I love books about really scary diseases too, I confess. I shall definitely be reading this.

    1. It's funny having a stange attraction to plague years etc. Wonder what that is about. Thank you for visiting the page . cheers, Pam


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