THE BALLAD OF TYPHOID MARY by J. F. Federspiel

THE BALLAD OF TYPHOID MARY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An odd arrival from Switzerland: with philosophical and sociological asides, a dying New York City pediatrician narrates the grisly life story--roughly factual, trimmed in fictional invention--of Maria Caduff, a.k.a. Mary Mallon, a.k.a. ""Typhoid Mary."" (Supposedly, the narrator's grandfather, also a doctor, did original research on the case before Mary died in 1938; furthermore, she came from the same German/Swiss region as did this family of doctors.) The ""ballad""--with short, plain, episodic chapters--begins in 1868, as the 13-year-old, just-orphaned Mary arrives in N.Y., one of the few healthy souls to come off the plague-ridden immigrant ship Leibnitz. But, ""as chronicler of Maria's life, I have to admit it would have been better if she died then."" Because, though herself unaffected, Mary is a carrier of typhus--which she (at first unknowingly, later with a kind of pristine vengeance) transmits to one New Yorker after another. Her first victim: the pathetic, kinky doctor who rescues her from the immigration station. Next: a paralyzed man whom Mary is hired to feed. And the death toil mounts quickly--especially since Mary, who had become the concubine of the Leibnitz's doomed cook, is single-minded in her determination to be a chef. (""I can cook"" are her first, oft-repeated English words.) Most of Mary's victims are embodiments of greedy, selfish, capitalist America. Her true, unconsummated love--who doesn't share Mary's own matter-of-fact approach to sex--is a soulful, shack-dwelling anarchist named Chris Cramer. So, with the narrator musing on Mary's ""ability to bring about a truly equalizing justice,"" there's a Brecht-like attempt to cast Mary's story as a Marxist, deterministic parable. (""I hereby proclaim Mary Mallon, alias Maria Caduff, a hero. She had no choice. That's why."") But only one of the tiny sequences here is truly haunting: before Mary has learned her own secret, someone else has guessed it--and hires her to care for an unwanted mongoloid child, hoping (in vain, as it happens) that Mary's cooking will prove, as usual, fatal. And this short, spare recitation is finally more curious than powerful: a bit arch in its quasi-documentary manner, but effectively distanced (Mary's feelings and motives remain enigmatic) and--allowing for losses in translation--starkly stylish.

Pub Date: Dec. 31st, 1983
Publisher: Dutton