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Fever by Mary Beth Keane

1899 is a year not forgotten by Mary Mallon. It was the year she was a cook for the Kirkenbauer family, the year their toddler son died of a fever. Typhoid fever.


By 1907 Mary Mallon has been accused of being a carrier of typhoid and is arrested. The novel Fever by Mary Beth Keane is the story of Mary Mallon. Mary is an Irish immigrant to the United States, and her lover, Alfred, is a German immigrant. They live together in New York City, Mary moving in with Alfred after the death of her aunt. Living with a man without marriage regardless of what anyone thinks! Mary is a strong woman who knows her own mind, and works hard to support herself – and sometimes Alfred. Alfred also works hard but as time goes on he is more and more unable to find work, as drink has made him unreliable.

Work for Mary is cooking and baking – it is her passion and she is very good at it. “the rhythmic beat of her spoon against the bowl as she beat … Using her fingertips. She arranged blue-berries into a neat semi-circle … Quick as a blink she swiped her finger into the ice-cream bowl …she licked quickly from the mixing spoon, and then, without thinking, plunged it back in the bowl.” Of course, all the while, spreading disease. She had no idea – and it took some time before she was suspected of being a typhoid carrier. This is all in the very early 1900s and it was just discovered that there could be carriers who were never ill themselves – and most of those who ate the meals Mary prepared did not become ill.

The portrait of New York City at this time is fascinating – the crowds of immigrants of all nationalities, the crowded tenements, people renting rooms and renting out beds to make ends meet. Boarding houses with cots lined up – some who work in the day replacing those who work at night. A vibrant, teeming, and filthy city.

The relationship between Mary and Alfred is deep and strong, but they are separated when Mary is forced into isolation. She needs the support of her lover, support he does not know how to provide. Alfred is by far the weaker partner in this relationship.

“Toward the end of her life, when Mary had nothing to do except think about the things she’d done when she was still young … she wondered why she spent so much precious time trying to change things … especially the her years with Alfred.”

By the time he is a middle-aged man Alfred is an alcoholic. Eventually he manages to give up drinking, but by then he is experiencing so much pain from work related injuries that he is prescribed narcotics. We watch Alfred as he moves from pain management to addiction. Mary later wondering if she could have changed things for him, but the medicated Alfred was an easier man to live with than one desperate for a drink or drugs. I found this aspect of the story one that had an almost contemporary feel as we have see so many people in the present time become addicted to opiates.

Mary Beth Keane’s work came to my attention this summer with the publication of her most recent book Ask Again, Yes which I loved – and Fever is just as good.


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