Mary Beth Keane

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Keane, Mary

Last Updated: Aug-22-2013
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In 1907, Mary Mallon, an Irish-born cook, is identified as the source of typhoid fever outbreaks in several of the households where she has been employed. Deemed a healthy carrier, she nevertheless cannot comprehend her role in the tragedies and rejects her responsibility. How could she harbor the germ that causes the disease and not be ill herself?

Led by Dr. George Soper, the authorities ensure that she is incarcerated on North Brother Island in the Hudson River – until a lawyer takes an interest in her case. An important part of her defence comes from the growing knowledge that many other people are also healthy carriers of the germ and they have not been incarcerated. Finally in 1910, she regains her freedom on condition that she never cook for others again.

But Mary loves cooking, and it is a far more lucrative occupation than her work as a laundress. In addition, she needs to support her common-law partner, Alfred, who has a serious drinking problem and is chronically unable to find work. Alfred had left her for another woman during her incarceration and succeeds in giving up alcohol. But he still loves Mary and abandons the other woman; he vanishes out west and is injured in a horrible fire that leaves him deformed and in chronic pain. Mary finds him and tries to help him, but Alfred now slowly slips into drug addiction.

The temptation to start cooking again is too great. The inevitable happens and Mary is caught. This time, however, she does not protest and ends her days as a captive of New York City.

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