Thursday, September 5, 2013

From Cook to Convict

For over a century, American society demonized Mary Mallon. As recently as 2005, she was labeled, "the most dangerous woman in America." An Internet search of Mary Mallon yields thousands of results. Prominent newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, continue to run articles about her. Yet she is far from a household name, unless you're aware of what a New York City paper dubbed her in 1910 - "Typhoid Mary."

Blending biography and fiction, Mary Beth Keane's compulsively readable novel Fever is the account of Mary who, as a teenager, traveled alone from Ireland to New York City in 1883. Starting life in her new country as a laundress, she quickly harnessed her talent and passion for cooking and worked her way into the kitchens of the New York elite. Her story opens with the simple line, "The day started with sour milk and got worse." and weaves through her complicated journey from cook to convict. Accused of being an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid - infecting her clients through her cooking - she was forcibly quarantined on North Brother Island for close to 30 years (dying on the island in 1938) but maintained her innocence to the end of her life.

Fever is a fascinating study of both Mary and the times, and perfectly captures the personalities, climate and catastrophes of turn-of-the century New York including the General Slocum ferry disaster and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. During its annual award honoring young writers, the National Book Foundation named Keane one of 5 Under 35 and her tender portrayal of Mary's loves and losses is one of the reasons.

Vicki Ann

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