Typhoid Mary. It's a term that has been used enough in our culture to be familiar, but what is not commonplace is the source of the term, the real woman who bore that infamous title. I'll be the first to admit that I was unaware of the derivation of the phrase. I honestly had never really thought about it. Clearly, though, author Mary Beth Keane did give it some thought, and has written "Fever", her novel based on the tragic circumstance of Irish immigrant, Mary Mallon, who became famous in the early 20th Century for nothing more than not getting sick.
Typhoid was rampant in the filthy urban environments of the East Coast during the Industrial Revolution. Little was understood about the spreading of disease, and the idea of cleanliness and hygiene had not taken root. Keane's fascinating account of the capture and imprisonment of the young cook, Mary Mallon, reads well and paints a vivid picture of her unfortunate life, in which the public health department of New York determined she was a threat to society, a carrier of Typhoid, putting her in confinement on an island in the East River.
Mary Mallon emerges as a very tangible character, a strong woman with a talent for cooking and a caring nature. But, her life is turned upside down by the fear of the community, which find it is easier to hide her away as a pariah, convinced she is a health hazard.
"Fever" brings the streets of New York alive, and reminds one that history is not just names without faces attached. Lessons can be learned by digging a little deeper and discovering the true stories beneath the names. This was a joy to read.