Mary Mary Quite Contrary

I inadvertently signed up for eight classes that run at the same time, mostly because when I signed up the dates were all TBD, which means shorter and erratic columns for a couple of months. These classes are weirdly connected, with one about epidemics and one called Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction. In that class, which has a ridiculously long reading list, we're going to discuss a book called Fever, by Mary Beth Keane, which is a fictionalized retelling of the trials and travails of Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary.

The story of Typhoid Mary is both tragic and fascinating. Most of what I have seen or read regarding her case is extremely unsympathetic, which kind of makes sense, given how many people got sick from the bacillus she was carrying. Recently I saw a photo set that included images of the hut that she lived in for the last decades of her life, after she had been quarantined for the second time on North Brother Island near Manhattan. Of course it has been empty forever, with the island now belonging to nesting birds, so some degradation is to be expected, but it is so forlorn and depressing that it made me feel even worse for Mary. But at the same time she is a woman who knew she was infectious and went back to work as a cook anyway, causing more deaths. How do you feel any empathy for someone like that?

Ms. Keane has done it in part by using Mary's own words, which are from a letter written while she was first imprisoned on the island, to infuse the feelings and thoughts of the fictional Mary she creates. She delves into much more than just Mary's imprisonment; also discussing her emigration from Ireland, her turbulent relationship with an alcoholic/addict, and her life in a New York City tenement, where the residents never quite make ends meet.

A Nova documentary, which is rather histrionically titled The Most Dangerous Woman in America, is pretty snide and says, “Lederle, however, did not help her train for another profession that would have provided her with the standard of living to which she had become accustomed.” ( Ordinarily when someone says something about being accustomed to a certain standard of living they mean the person in question is or was living in the lap of luxury. If trying to feed your family and keep a roof over your heads is living in the lap of luxury then we're all incredibly pampered.

When Mary is released from her first incarceration on the island she is told she can't cook any more and to go and work in a laundry. Not only is this work harder and rougher on her middle-aged body but it pays a pittance, forcing her to rent a cot in someone's home instead of an apartment. Not only does she share the space with quite a few people, her cot is situated so that everyone else climbs over her body when they need to go in and out the place. Yuck. Maybe it's not so shocking that she went back to the job that gave her good wages and a sense of pride in what she did. How did she reconcile this with her infectious state? Fever gives an excellent look into the answer to this and other questions.

You can access an excerpt from the novel here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a comic from Boulet called Egg Surprise. It's about those little toys you get in chocolate eggs. Or at least you get them outside of the United States. Or maybe online?