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Fever

Fever

A Novel

  • reading group guide
  • freshman reading
Mary Beth Keane, named one of the 5 Under 35 by the National Book Foundation, has written a spectacularly bold and intriguing novel about the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” the first person in America identified as a healthy carrier of Typhoid Fever.

On the eve of the twentieth century, Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to make her way in New York City. Brave, headstrong, and dreaming of being a cook, she fought to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder. Canny and enterprising, she worked her way to the kitchen, and discovered in herself the true talent of a chef. Sought after by New York aristocracy, and with an independence rare for a woman of the time, she seemed to have achieved the life she’d aimed for when she arrived in Castle Garden. Then one determined “medical engineer” noticed that she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked, and identified her as an “asymptomatic carrier” of Typhoid Fever. With this seemingly preposterous theory, he made Mallon a hunted woman.

The Department of Health sent Mallon to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910, then released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—proud of her former status and passionate about cooking—the alternatives were abhorrent. She defied the edict.

Bringing early-twentieth-century New York alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the park carved out of upper Manhattan, the boat traffic, the mansions and sweatshops and emerging skyscrapers—Fever is an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the imagination of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes a fiercely compelling, dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable heroine.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 336 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451693423 | 
  • March 2014
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Fever includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book clubThe suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Mary Mallon was a brave, headstrong Irish immigrant who journeyed alone to America. She began as a laundress, but with an innate talent for cooking, Mary ascended the domestic service ladder and worked as a cook for upper-class families. Unbeknownst to Mary, she left a trail of Typhoid fever and death in her wake. One “medical engineer,” proposing a new theory of “asymptomatic carriers,” traced the fever back to the woman we now know as “Typhoid Mary.” To prevent Mary from further spreading the disease, the New York Department of Health isolated her on North Brother Island for three years. A condition of her release was that she would never cook professionally again. But Mary’s passion for cooking, combined with the meager alternatives available to her, propelled her to defy the edict. In Fever, Mary Beth Keane brings early twentieth century New York City alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the mansions, the factories, the rising skyscrapers and the perils of city life. Keane’s retelling of Typhoid Mary’s life tra see more

About the Author

Mary  Beth Keane
Photograph by Nina Subin

Mary Beth Keane

Mary Beth Keanewas born in New York City to Irish parents and grew up in Rockland County, New York. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named by Julia Glass to the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35.” She lives in Pearl River, New York, with her husband and their two sons.

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