Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Read With Us: Fever

Since at least a few of you have already finished reading Fever, I'm not sure I need to do a promotional post for the book we've chosen this quarter, especially after Carole's post last week. But in case there are readers out there who are new to Read With Us or anyone who might be on the fence about this second book, that's just what I'm going to do. 

There’s still plenty of time to join us as we read Fever by Mary Beth Keane. (Interesting aside: she is also the author of Ask Again, Yes, which many of you may have read.)This month, we’re providing some background information about the book. In February, we’ll begin posting some discussion questions so we can talk about the book together. I hope you’ll join us! It's easy. There's nothing to sign up for or commit to. All you need to do . . . is read with us!

Whenever I read historical fiction, I find that I get more and more curious about the real-life story as I read, and that's certainly been the case with Mary Mallon. As I’m reading, I’m also doing quite a bit of Googling about her, the disease of typhoid fever, George Soper (the sanitation engineer who "discovered" Mary), and Mary's treatment by the New York City Health Department. 

Here are some interesting things I’ve learned:
  • Typhoid fever is a bacterial disease caused by Samonella typhi. Symptoms include a fever that can be as high as 103–104°F, headache, stomach pain, and weakness. A rash of rose-colored spots may be present. Without treatment, the death rate ranges from 20-30%. Treatment is with antibiotics, but antibiotic resistance is increasing.
  • The CDC estimates that worldwide, typhoid fever affects an estimated 11 to 21 million people and 5,700 people in the United States each year. It is spread through sewage contamination of food or water and through person-to-person contact.
  • At least three deaths were attributed to Mary, but because she used aliases and was generally uncooperative, some estimate she may have caused as many as 50 deaths.
  • Mary Mallon was the first asymptomatic typhoid carrier to be identified by medical science, and there was no policy providing guidelines for handling the situation. 
  • By the time of her second quarantine, Mallon was far from the only known asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. There were thousands across the country and hundreds in New York.
  • Other healthy typhoid carriers identified at the beginning of the 20th century include Tony Labella, an Italian immigrant, presumed to have caused over 100 cases with five deaths, an Adirondack guide dubbed "Typhoid John", presumed to have infected 36 people with two deaths, and Alphonse Cotils, a restaurateur and bakery owner. 
I'm pretty sure our discussion will bring up the rights of patients with communicable diseases, the prejudice against Irish immigrants, the treatment of Mary Mallon, and gender and social class distinctions in early 20th century America.

"Mary," I said, "I've come to talk with you and see if between us we cannot get you out of here. When I have asked you to help me before, you have refused and when others have asked you, you have refused them also. You would not be where you are now if you had not been so obstinate. So throw off your wrong-headed idea and be reasonable. Nobody wants to harm you. You say you have never caused a case of typhoid, but I know you have done so. Nobody thinks you have done it purposely. But you have done it just the same. Many people have been made sick and have suffered a great deal; some have died. You refused to give specimens which would help to clear up the trouble. So you were arrested and brought here and the specimens taken in spite of your resistance. They proved what I charged. Now you must surely see how mistaken you were. Don't you acknowledge it?"
Soper, G A. “The Curious Career of Typhoid Mary.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine vol. 15,10 (1939): 698-712.

I do hope you’ll join us over the next few weeks as we read and discuss Fever and Read With Us!

Read Carole's post from last Tuesday with even more information about the book, and watch for another post next Tuesday when Kym adds her perspective.


  1. More great background information, Bonny. I'm still reading the book but should be finished in another day or two.

  2. Thanks for sharing all of this great background info, Bonny! I was also googling quite a bit as I read. What I am still curious about (and what we may discuss next month) is whether better knowledge of good personal hygiene would have made a difference. If Mary had known how to properly wash her hands, for instance, would she have been safe to cook for others?

  3. I've read about 75 pages so far and am enjoying it. Certainly lots to discuss!!

  4. I have yet to start (I know, bad me!) but this background information is tremendously helpful! Being asymptomatic is no fun - ask me, my daughter was a strep carrier which we did not know for months and we even tested the dog at massive expense!

  5. I, too, learned more about the disease, and about Mary, from searching during my reading of the book. Historical fiction gives us look into a world we can never truly know (thank goodness!).

  6. That Mary! Looking forward to the discussion and have found it interesting to Google about the subject as well!

  7. I have finished Fever and look forward to our discussion!

  8. oh thank you for the research into the "facts". I must admit I was a little disappointed Keane didn't share at least some of that in an author note ... I just finished The Last Days of Night and Graham Moore spent a few pages unraveling the fact from the fiction. It really makes me appreciate what those authors make believe even more when they do!

  9. I googled everything as I was reading, too! Tom used to travel to India regularly, and every year or two, he had to get the typhoid vaccine. It was a live vaccine -- which was always a bit unnerving.

  10. Okay. I like to read CDC stuff, so you just may have me here. I'll read a few pages on line and decide!

    1. I was mainly interested in the medical aspects of typhoid in this story, so you might be also.

  11. Interesting research and I'm sure the discussion will be interesting too. I'm about half way through but am reading it along with a couple of other books. Sometimes that works well for me and sometimes not.

  12. This should be quite an interesting discussion considering the new corono virus scare ...


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