by Mary Beth Keane
Ask Maria Callas not to sing.
Ask Anna Pavlova not to dance.
Ask Frida Kahlo not to paint.
Ask Mary Mallon not to cook.
Artists all, and all called to their work.
But wait, who is Mary Mallon? Why is she grouped with these famous artists? Mary Mallon was an artist, a kitchen artist devoted to her passion and willing to make sacrifices for it. Well known in her day, she is remembered, but not as Mary Mallon the cook or culinary wizard. No, she is known as Typhoid Mary, the spreader of disease and often death.
You can learn the basic facts of Mallon's life in just a few minutes via a computer or the reference aisle at the local library. However these few cold facts don't begin to tell the entire story. Mary Beth Keane's riveting novel, Fever, does.
Rudyard Kipling said that "if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten," and readers of this story are not likely to forget Mary's history or that of the killer disease. Fever creates round and real characters.
Mary is a sympathetic character. Certainly not a heroine, not even when her condition is thoroughly explained to her, not even when she indicates she understands. Mary continually puts lives in danger by following her passion and supporting her one love. "Baking is not cooking," she explained after she'd been forbidden to cook for others but continued.
Equally vivid is Mary's nemesis Dr. George Soper, who was determined to ruin Mary's life while building his own reputation. In doing so he saved innumerable innocent lives, while destroying hers.
Set in the vivid world of Irish immigrants in New York City in the early twentieth century and the isolation of North Brother Island, a quarantine location for those suffering tuberculosis, Fever is more riveting because it is based on fact. I finished with the satisfaction that follows a good story well told, but also with a mind full of questions, the hallmark of a fine book.
Author of The Walking People Mary Beth Keane shares the Irish heritage of Mary Mallon. The National Book Foundation named her one of "5 under 35." She lives near New York City with her family. Learn more on her website.
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