The Joys of Historical Fiction

Fever Mary Mallon TyphoidLet’s talk about historical fiction, shall we?

I love it. But I hate saying it out loud. “Historical fiction” sounds like something with heaving bosoms both between and on the covers. But! There are many wonderful examples that I have loved over the years, mostly involving Ye Olde New York. Natch.

(Oh, fine. I’ll give you a recommendation: Beverly Swerling’s City of Promise. A little bosom heaving, yes, but mostly a pretty amazing look at New York City immediately after the Civil War.)

I did read one recently that I did not love, though. Fever. No, not about Peggy Lee. I wish! About Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary.

The premise is a solid one: An Irish immigrant who has worked her way into the kitchens of some of Manhattan’s wealthiest families is told by rich, patronizing white men that she infects people with typhoid, even though she’s never had it. Who is she supposed to believe? Especially when they take her from her job by force and lock her in isolation for years until a canny lawyer finally gets her freed. There’s a condition, though: She can never cook again.

Mallon went back to cooking under a pseudonym, as we all know, but what Mary Beth Keane posits is that she wasn’t reckless so much as her whole identity was wrapped up in being a chef, and is is cruel to ask her to never do that again while offering no other comparable possibilities; Keane’s Mallon works as a washwoman immediately upon release, which is a far cry from cooking for families in Oyster Bay.

There are sparks of that novel in Fever, moments when issues of race and class rise to the top and subvert a story we thought we all knew, that Typhoid Mary was stupid, or vengeful, or evil. Keane succeeds at making her none of those things, but she also makes Mary Mallon lovelorn.

Yes, Typhoid Mary had a common-law husband, who first drinks and ultimately becomes a drug addict, and it is of him that Mary most often thinks. It’s because of him that she ultimately stops trying to fight permanent isolation, and why she does any number of things. Thornier subjects take a backseat to this tedious, second-hand love story that feels out of place among the rest of the book.

However, and this is why I love historical fiction, Keane’s research into a time period that goes little remarked upon—the pre-World War I years in NYC—saves Fever from being a complete disappointment. Did you know that Mary Mallon was kept on North Brother Island in the East River until her death in 1938? Did you know that North Brother Island is now abandoned? And did you know about the General Slocum disaster? The Titanic and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire both make appearances here, but it’s the little known stories that make Fever worth dipping into.

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One thought on “The Joys of Historical Fiction

  1. I have a perfect nonfiction follow-up for you. Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical by Anthony Bourdain. Yes, that Anthony Bourdain. One of my very favorite nonfiction books.

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