A fictional portrait of Typhoid Mary, the Irish immigrant cook who spread disease and death among the cramped, unsanitary streets of turn-of-the-century New York.
Opening with the arrest of Mary Mallon in 1907, Keane (The Walking People, 2009) moves back and forth across several decades to flesh out the famous plague carrier’s character against a detailed social panorama. Mallon’s arrival in 1883; her work ethic and ambition to rise from laundress to cook; her peculiar loyalty to work-shy Alfred Briehof, the alcoholic who refused to marry her—all these provide context as Keane explores Mary’s treatment at the hands of the Department of Health. Quarantined first in a hospital and later on North Brother Island for two years, the “Germ Woman” eventually finds a sympathetic lawyer who works for her release on condition she never cooks for others. Liberated, Mary returns to laundry work in the city. Plague carrier she may be, but Keane’s Mallon is a fiercely independent woman grappling with work, love, pride and guilt. Exhausted by the laundry and yearning to cook, Mary becomes a baker but is discovered by her nemesis, Dr. Soper. On the run, reunited with now morphine-addicted Alfred, she starts cooking at Sloane Maternity Hospital until realization and responsibility become unavoidable.
A memorable biofiction that turns a malign figure of legend into a perplexing, compelling survivor.