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Two Looks at Typhoid Mary

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Fever  Deadly

In October, I read Fever by Mary Beth Keane and then earlier this month, I got my hands on Deadly by Julie Chibbaro. Both deal with Typhoid Mary in very different styles and from extremely different angles.  Also, it must be pointed out that Deadly is considered Young Adult, even won the National Jewish Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, while Fever is geared towards adult historical fiction.

Since Deadly is more fresh in my mind I will tackle that one first.  Prudence is a young lady slightly ahead of her time. Her losses, a brother to some disease and her father MIA in the Spanish-American War, have led her to be obsessed with what makes the body tick and what makes it stop ticking. Luckily she lands a job in the fairly new Health Department and this feeds her need for knowledge and leads her on the hunt for what turns out to be Typhoid Mary alongside her boss, George Soper.

Now Deadly, is a great book for young adults. It shows that women had to fight for their place in the world (especially the sciences), to be taken seriously, and to be sexually harassed while doing so at the beginning of the 20th century. However, it really didn’t focus one bit on the Typhoid Mary other than a few inner conflicts that Prudence felt about her treatment. The focus of Prudence’s strife could have been set in any backdrop at that time period, say a woman that wants to be a clerk as opposed to a shirt waste maker or any other field/area that women had yet to really enter at the time. At it’s heart, it is a story of a young girl with dreams  that are “above her station” and trying to achieve them. A great story until I compare it to Fever.

Fever was for adults and told from the viewpoint of Typhoid Mary herself, Mary Mallon. Imagine yourself, an Irish woman, never been sick a day in your life that you can remember, immigrating to the United States by yourself and working hard enough to become a well-known for hire cook in some of the more respected households. You live a fairly moral life, except for the fact that you have never married the man that you live with. It is the the early 20th century, so fevers and other often deadly illnesses are still common among all classes.  You, Mary the cook, pitch in when fevers hit a household that you are working in; preparing cold compresses, ice baths, and the like.

Suddenly, in 1906, some man named George Soper from the Health Department starts chasing you down telling you that you are the one responsible for all of those illnesses and deaths.  (Insert my great-great-grandmother’s Irish brogue here saying, “Are ye daft man? I’ve never been sick a day of me life, hows could I be making these people sick? ‘Tis crazy) She ran off from the man, multiple times and from job to job.

No matter, eventually Soper captures our dear Mary Mallon by force and quarantines her on North Brother Island in a hospital usually used for Small Pox victims. She is still healthy as a horse, but all told, spends 26 years living in a wee house on that island, not sick, but not allowed to leave.

Obviously, Mary’s travails griped me in Fever in a way that Deadly couldn’t and wasn’t meant to. The injustice, the loneliness, the longing, the sheer uncertainty of life and science at that point left me wanting to find the  grave of Mary Mallon and apologize for what we did to her.

So if you want a light young adult overview of Typhoid Mary, pick Deadly. If you want to feel her pain and really dealve into the story of Mary Mallon, read Fever.  And….if you ever find yourself wandering around Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, doff your hat to her for me.

Fever: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (March 12, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 1451693419
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451693416

Deadly by Julie Chibarro

  • Age Range: 12 and up
  • Grade Level: 7 and up
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers; Reprint edition (February 21, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 068985739X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0689857393

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  • Ti Reed

    I eat this stuff up. I am so infatuated with pandemics. LOL.

    Plus, my daughter’s nickname is Typhoid Mary because of all the gnarly germs she seems to track home these days.

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