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Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)Summary:
Have you ever heard of Typhoid Mary? The Irish-American cook in the early 1900s who was lambasted for spreading typhoid through her cooking. What many don’t know is that she was an asymptomatic carrier. This was the early ages of germ theory, and most didn’t realize you could pass on an illness without any symptoms. Captured and held against her will on North Brother Island, it’s easy to empathize with her plight. Until she’s released and begins cooking again.

Review:
I grew up hearing the cautionary tale of Typhoid Mary, who was mostly mentioned within hearing range in combination with an admonition to wash your hands. But some people (mainly other children) told tales of her purposefully infecting those she served. These sentences were spoken with a combination of fear and awe. On the one hand, how understandable at a time when worker’s rights were nearly completely absent and to be both a woman and Irish in America was not a good combination. On the other hand, how evil to poison people with such a heinous illness in their food. In any case, when this fictionalized account of Mary Mallon came up, I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman anyway? It turns out, the mixture of awe and fear reflected in myself and other children was actually fairly accurate.

I’m going to speak first about the actual Mary Mallon and then about the writing of the book. If you’re looking for the perfect example of gray area and no easy answers mixed with unfair treatment based on gender and nation of origin, then hoo boy do you find one with Mary Mallon. The early 1900s was early germ theory, and honestly, when you think about it, germ theory sounds nuts if you don’t grow up with it. You can carry invisible creatures on your skin and in your saliva that can make other people but not yourself sick. Remember, people didn’t grow up knowing about germs. It was an entirely new theory. The status quo was don’t cook while you’re sick, and hygiene was abysmally low…basically everywhere. It’s easy to understand how Mary was accidentally spreading sickness and didn’t know it. It’s also easy to understand why she would have fought at being arrested (she did nothing malicious or wrong and was afraid of the police). Much as we may say now that she should have known enough to wash her hands frequently. Wellll, maybe not so much back then.

Public health officials said that they tried to reason with Mary, and she refused to stop cooking or believe that she was infecting others. This is why they quarantined her on North Brother Island. Some point to others (male, higher social status) who were found to be asymptomatic carriers who were not quarantined. True. But they also acknowledged the risk and agreed to stop doing whatever it was that was spreading the illness. Maybe Mary was more resistant because of the prejudice she was treated with from the beginning. Or maybe she really was too stubborn to be able to understand what a real risk she posed to others. Regardless, it is my opinion that no matter the extraneous social factors (being a laundress is more difficult than being a cook, people were overly harsh with her, etc…) Mary still knowingly cooked and infected people after she was released from North Brother Island. Yes, there were better ways public health officials could have handled the whole situation but that’s still an evil thing to do. So that’s the real story of Mary Mallon. Now, on to the fictional account (and here you’ll see why I bothered discussing the facts first).

At first Keane does a good job humanizing a person who has been extremely demonized in American pop culture. Time and effort is put into establishing Mary’s life and hopes. Effort is made into showing how she may not have noticed typhoid following her wherever she went. She emigrated from Ireland. She, to put it simply, saw a lot of shit. A lot of people got sick and died. That was just life. I also liked how the author showed the ways in which Mallon was contrarian to what was expected of women. She didn’t marry. She was opinionated and sometimes accused of not dressing femininely enough. But, unfortunately, that’s where my appreciation fo the author’s handling of Mallon ends.

The author found it necessary to give Mallon a live-in, alcoholic boyfriend who gets almost as much page time as herself. In a book that should be about Mary, he gets entirely too much time, and that hurts the plot. (There is seriously a whole section about him going to Minnesota that is entirely pointless). A lot of Mary’s decisions are blamed on this boyfriend. While I get it that shitty relationships can cause you to make shitty decisions, at a certain point accountability comes into play. No one held a gun to Mary’s head and made her cook or made her date this man (I couldn’t find any records to support this whole alcoholic boyfriend, btw).

On a similar note, a lot of effort is made into blaming literally everyone but Mary for the situation. It’s society’s fault. It’s culture’s fault. It’s Dr. Soper’s fault. They should have rehabbed her with a new job that was more comparable to cooking than being a laundress. They should have had more empathy. Blah blah blah. Yes. In a perfect world they would have realized how backbreaking being a laundress is and trained her in something else. But, my god, in the early 1900s they released her and found her a job in another career field. That’s a lot for that time period! This is the early days of public health. The fact that anyone even considered finding her a new career is kind of amazing. And while I value and understand the impact society and culture and others have on the individual’s ability to make good and moral decisions, I still believe ultimately the individual is morally responsible. And at some point, Mary, with all of her knowledge of the fact that if she cooked there was a high probability someone would die, decided to go and cook anyway. And she didn’t cook just anywhere. She cooked at a maternity ward in a hospital. So the fact that the book spends a lot of time trying to remove all personal culpability from Mary bothered me a lot.

I’m still glad I read the book, but I sort of wish I’d just read the interesting articles and watched the PBS special about her instead. It would have taken less time and been just as factual.

Source: Audible

3 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: The Emerald Diamond: How the Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime by Charley Rosen

A baseball with green lacings is the backdrop to the book title.Summary:
Did you know baseball has been entwined with Irish-Americans from the very beginning of the sport?  Rosen goes through the history of baseball, focusing in on how Irish-American players, managers, and owners impacted the game.

Review:
I picked this up from my pile of older review copies to read in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.  I’m part Irish myself and was a US History major in undergrad, so the concept of the book definitely appealed to me.  The book addresses the interesting topic of Irish-Americans in baseball but unfortunately presents the history in an only sometimes interesting way and utilizes sloppy research.

The book starts in the 1800s and works its way up through time, ending many chapters with a modern day interview to reflect upon the ideas presented in the chapter.  The earliest chapters are the most interesting.  They take the events and use them to tell the story of how Irish-Americans broke into baseball partly because many careers were closed off to them due to anti-Irish discrimination in America (No Irish Need Apply).  Originally, the game was much less regulated, and the Irish-American players brought with them a willingness to be sly and rough that added an element of excitement to the game that brought out more viewers.  Reading about how the rules slowly changed and how Irish-Americans impacted those changes was definitely fascinating.  It was also disturbing to discover how many players in the early years had serious addiction problems, not to mention the presence of multiple suicides.  Unfortunately, the opportunity to analyze this phenomenon and discuss it in depth is passed by, as is most true historical analysis.

Starting in the early 20th century, the formatting of the book changes so that instead of telling a story, the heading of a year is given and bullet-points of events for that year are listed.  Some of these bullet-points break out to be actual stories, instead of just pure listing of facts, and that is what kept me reading.  But mostly about half the book is just lists of baseball facts.  It reminded me of reading Chronicles in the Bible (so-and-so begat so-and-so).  There are some interesting tidbits in there, but they are few and far between.

I was truly appalled when I flipped back to check the references in the back that almost all of them are secondary sources, and a significant number are Wikipedia.  It’s one thing to start your research at Wikipedia to familiarize yourself with the topic and then broaden out to more scholarly work and primary sources.  It’s another thing entirely to publish an entire book that basically just sums up Wikipedia. A work of historic nonfiction should seek out as many primary sources as possible, read secondary analyses, and provide analysis both of the primary and secondary sources.  What Rosen has done is mostly to regurgitate what Wikipedia and other secondary sources have already said.  The exception to this is the modern day interviews Rosen conducted, but they make up a small portion of the book. Perhaps 15%.  If the book had consisted of interviews with modern Irish-American players and descendants of Irish-American players and managers, complete with analysis and investigation using primary and secondary materials, that would have been a fantastic book.  Instead we get a relisting of information already gathered (and better sourced) in secondary sources spiced up with a few interviews.  If I had bought this book, I would have returned it.

Overall, there are some interesting tidbits about how Irish-Americans impacted the game of baseball.  Unfortunately, large parts of the book are lists of facts, with no analysis or storytelling,  Additionally, Rosen relied primarily on secondary source materials, mostly Wikipedia, to research his book.  The reader could get similar information from Wikipedia themself and have the ability to click through to the source materials.  I would suggest doing that over buying this book.  For those seeking a book on the topic, I recommend The Irish in Baseball: An Early History by David L. Fleitz, a sports historian who clearly consulted primary and secondary sources in his writing.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Print copy from publisher in exchange for my honest review

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