Wednesday, January 22, 2014

There Once Was a Cook Named Mary...

Before I read Mary Beth Keane's Fever, I had never heard of Typhoid Mary.  I've heard the expression, but I wasn't aware that she had been a real, living person.  I also don't read too much historical fiction, so I'm not sure what made me pick up this novel.  But I'm really glad that I did.

Keane's story takes place in 1907 New York and touches on difference pieces of thematic content:  fears of the plague; women in power being brought down by powerful patriarchs; New York as a growing metropolis that barely has a place for its inhabitants; the abuse that many immigrants had to put up with in order to make a "better life" in America; the conflict between science and superstition; and (naturally) the power of food.

Obviously, Keane's Mary is the person responsible for our phrase "Typhoid Mary," but this novel pulls her out of the one dimensional character from our history books.  Mary lives in a small apartment in New York with her partner, Alfred - an alcoholic who is constantly out of work.  Mary and Alfred don't see a reason to get married (which already sets up her character as one who refuses most social conventions of the time), but instead cultivate a partnership where they rely on each other to make their little apartment a beautiful home.  The novel begins with Mary away at a job as cook and trying to save her employers and their son from typhoid fever.  Mary fails to save the lady of the house and her son, and this moment of watching the little boy die will stay with Mary for the rest of her life (and reappear in her darkest days).  Mary returns to New York to get a job closer to home and settles back into the life she had before this traumatic event.

At her new position as head cook of the kitchen, Mary is visited - actually she is kidnapped forcefully - by Dr. Soper and his medical team.  The real reason is not explained to Mary at first, and when it is explained, it makes less sense to her and the reader:  Mary is responsible for being a "carrier" of the bacteria that causes typhoid fever and the only way to prevent more people from dying is to keep her isolated on an island off of Manhattan where she can never rejoin society again, but be forced to take a lot of tests.  Dr. Soper hopes to make a name for himself in the medical books by proving that Mary passes the disease through her cooking.  He treats Mary like the lab rat that he thinks she is and even goes so far as trying to bully her into giving up her gallbladder for study (as someone who had their gallbladder removed last summer, the thought of having it removed in the 1900's makes me want to faint).  Mary, being the headstrong woman that she is, refuses to give in to Soper.  We applaud her, but then cringe when we discover that Mary will be stuck on this island for the rest of her life.  Soper will just wait for her to die so he can harvest her organs; it may take a long time, but Mary's punishment for not giving in to those that "know better" (AKA the male doctors) is to lose everything she loves.

Since this is the early 20th century and Mary is a poor immigrant who struggles to find work, we can see how Dr. Soper's hypothesis can destroy Mary mentally, physically, and financially.  Her reputation, her relationship with Alfred, her little apartment and the rest of her life is at stake and Mary can barely make sense of it all as the doctors take advantage of her lack of education and keep their information from her.  Luckily, Mary has strong survival skills and manages to get the information she needs in order to make a case against Soper.

A few parts of the novel are taken from actual court documents as Mary takes her captors to court to win her freedom.  It's a longshot - an unmarried, poor, Irish cook against powerful, successful American doctors - but Mary wins...sort of.  She will be released from her hospital prison as long as she promises never to cook again. Despite her best efforts, Soper still manages to win this battle.  Mary is devastated; she spent a good amount of her life working her way up to her position in the household and she is proud of her pay and her power over her small space.  Also, Mary needs a job since Alfred's addiction makes it difficult to support them.  To Mary's horror, the court suggests that she finds work at a laundry.  Even in our 21st century worldview, we know what the court is asking Mary: to give up everything you worked for and take a pay cut, along with a class cut.  This conflict of ideas between Mary, and others like Mary, and those in "charge" show the socioeconomic dissonance that drove Mary's world and continues to drive our world.  If the reader wasn't already sympathetic to Mary's situation, he/she is now as Mary struggles to make the best of her new normal.  On top of her humiliation trying to find work as a laundress (it may be below her pay grade, but she still needs experience and references), Mary loses her home and Alfred.  Between Mary's imprisonment and her trial, years have passed and Alfred is now engaged to another woman (this is a very tricky moment in Keane's narrative - it is obvious that Alfred does not love this new woman and we don't get to see much from his point of view, but it does beg the question if he did this in order to survive after Mary is taken away).

If you know the story of Typhoid Mary, you know that Mary does not have a happy ending.  However, Keane's fictionalized account makes her real to us and forces the reader to struggle with the morality of Mary's decisions.  Cooking is her life, but there is a chance that she may be a carrier.  Does that mean her actions are justified? (Mary fears at certain points that she may have killed her employer's young son with her cooking). What would you do for survival?  How can you create a happy ending in a city that is ready to toss you aside? There is a moment in the novel where a milkman is discovered to be a carrier, but he isn't taken away because he has a wife and family.  Is Mary a target due to her gender, class, and nationality?  Is she another casualty in a long list of powerful, outspoken women who are blamed for bringing a plague upon her village?   This may be fictionalized account of a true story, but I found too many truths to remind myself that this is all make believe.

NOVA created a great archive of Mary's story titled "The Most Dangerous Woman in America."  If Mary Mallon's story speaks to you, this is worth checking out, as is Mary Beth Keane's Fever.  The site includes the letter Mary wrote to the courts in 1909, which Keane has included as a major point in her novel (this is how historical fiction should be done.  I understand that the writer gets to take liberties, but Keane shows a level of ethos and pathos that isn't always apparent in this genre.  For that, I respect her work).

To have Mary labeled as "the most dangerous woman in America," makes me wonder in which way is she the most danger to her environment.  Like her dishes described in Fever, Mary was full of flavors. I'm glad to see that she finally has a voice and a time period that is willing to listen to her side of the story.
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