Keane’s historical novel is based on the life of “Typhoid Mary”, a young Irish female servant who was probably mistakenly blamed for New York’s typhoid outbreak in 1907, and who was subsequently isolated from her partner and her friends on North Brother Island in the East River for years.
When doctors eventually found tests on her to be inconclusive, she was released, only to be taken back again when those in her care began, once more, to fall ill. Keane fleshes out Mary Mallon very successfully into a woman who may have known she was a carrier but couldn’t admit it to herself, giving her a troubled personal life with the alcoholic Alfred Briehof.
What begins like a non-fiction account, with court details and a superficial account of the island to which Mary is moved, quickly comes to life as a fascinating story which also considers class difference – there is a lovely poignant moment when Mary meets her employer wearing the same hat that she has saved for months to buy, and who denies the similarity. Such moments give us much-needed insight into Mary’s character, and possibly why she behaved the way she did.
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