Saturday, March 16, 2013


Mary Beth Keane is the author of The Walking People (2009) and the newly released novel, Fever, about the life of Typhoid Mary. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35.

Keane applied the Page 69 Test to Fever and reported the following:
Page 69 of Fever is the opening of chapter 6, which has the main character, Mary Mallon – known to history as “Typhoid Mary” – entering a courtroom for her habeas corpus hearing. Put in quarantine on North Brother Island against her will in 1907 after being the first discovered typhoid fever carrier in America, the opening of Chapter 6 shows her in 1910, petitioning to be released:
Almost every chair was occupied when she walked down the narrow center aisle. She’d pictured benches, polished wood, the judge elevated above them on a kind of throne, but instead the cramped and musty room was filled with straight-backed chairs in uneven lines. Some reporters had turned their chairs to make a cluster with others they knew. Some people who had no involvement in the case but had been following it in the papers nudged their chairs out of line bit by bit with impatient shifting. She wanted to know if Alfred was there, but she kept her eyes fixed on the neat seams of Mr. O’Neill’s suit jacket. There was a momentary hush when those closest to the door spotted her, and a collective creak as several dozen spectators turned to see her for themselves.
This moment dramatizes one of the most important moments in Mary’s life, and is one of several places in the novel where I tried to keep some historical details intact – from the names of the judges, to the newspapers represented in the courtroom to the sweltering heat of the day. Mary’s case made medical history and her hearing was a place where doctors could weigh in with their thoughts on what should be done with her, while reporters observed her and turned her into the one-dimensional character she became in history books. The matter at stake at the hearing is also the central question of my novel: which is more important, an individual’s rights or the safety of the public as a whole? While it was likely true that Mary Mallon was indeed a carrier of typhoid fever, does having a disease make a person a criminal?

This section also mentions Alfred, Mary’s longtime partner, whom Mary has not seen since several weeks before her capture in 1907. Though I took many, many liberties with their relationship, Alfred was a real figure in Mary’s life, and though there is no real proof, I believe they was love between them. Mary’s life was so complicated and tragic that it felt inevitable that her love life also be those things.
Learn more about the book and author at Mary Beth Keane's website.

--Marshal Zeringue