Senior Book Discussion: Fever
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“[A] gripping historical novel…Mary Beth Keane gives Mary her own voice, creating a richly sympathetic and provocative portrait of the very real person behind the pariah.” (Caroline Leavitt The San Francisco Chronicle)
“In Mary Beth Keane’s wholly absorbing, deeply moving new novel, Mallon emerges as a woman of fierce intelligence and wrongheaded conviction…Transforming a lived past into riveting fiction, Keane gives us a novel that thrums with life, and a heroine whose regrets, though entirely specific, feel utterly familiar.” (Kate Tuttle The Boston Globe)
“In Keane’s assured hands, [Mary Mallon] becomes a sympathetic, complex and even inspiring character…Not only is Fever a compelling read for anyone who gets drawn into medical mystery shows, it will also send shivers through anyone who’s ever felt the ill effects of gossip or hypocrisy.” (O, the Oprah magazine)
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About the Author
• Birth—July 3
• Where—Bronx, NY
• Education—MFA, Barnard College and The University of Virginia
• Currently—Pearl River, NY
Mary Beth Keane graduated from Barnard College and The University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. Her first novel, The Walking People (2009) was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first novel, and her second novel, Fever (2013) was named a best book of 2013 by NPR Books, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2011 she was named to the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35." She lives in Rockland County, New York with her husband and their two sons.
Fever is set in New York.
Haverstraw King's Daughters Public Library
10 West Ramapo Rd 85 Main St
Garnerville, NY 10923 Haverstraw, NY 10927
(845) 786-3800 (845) 429-3445
1. The story of Mary Mallon exemplifies a conflict between personal liberty and public health. Examine both sides of this conflict, discuss whether you think Mary’s case was handled well, and consider how it would have been dealt with today.
2. In early twentieth century New York, class and background dictated a person’s prospects. Find moments in the text when people discriminated against Mary as a poor Irish woman. How does Mary handle these situations? Are there any instances when Mary uses her identity to an advantage?
3. Mary and Alfred live together as an unmarried couple. Many people felt these circumstances were inappropriate, and the issue arises repeatedly. Are there any consequences to their situation? Would things have turned out differently had Alfred proposed to Mary?
4. The vibrant image of Mary’s hat, “cobalt blue with silk flowers and berries cascading around the brim” (p. 63) stays with her during her exile on North Brother and into the future. What does the hat symbolize for Mary? Consider when Mary encounters Mrs. Bowen wearing the exact same hat; Mrs. Bowen maintains that her hat is “similar, Mary, not identical. But I see what you mean.” (p.67) Why does Mrs. Bowen deny that she has the same hat as her cook?
5. Alfred constantly moves between various odd jobs in the city and in Minnesota, while Mary seems to have few choices: cooking (or baking), laundry, and factory work. Discuss how gender affects the characters’ options during this time. Consider Alfred and Mary, as well as the others in their building (Mila Boriello, Fran Mosely, Joan Graves, Jimmy Tiernan), Liza Meaney, and John Cane.
6. The media, particularly the newspapers, play a significant role in Mary’s story. Reread the article printed at the beginning of the novel. (p. 14) How do reporters influence the outcome of Mary’s trial?
7. Compare Mary’s situation to the case of the dairy farmer upstate. Why and how were they handled differently?
8. Mary has a justified distrust of doctors and others in the medical profession, especially after learning that the gall bladder surgery so emphatically pushed on her would have been completely futile. Later, when the doctors try to explain the way germs and disease spread, to Mary it “sounded like a fairy tale meant for children, a little world too small for the human eye to see, or like religion, in that they were asking her to believe such a thing existed without giving her a chance to look at it, hold it, understand it.” (p. 232) Consider the portrayal of the medical profession throughout the story. Compare Mary’s experiences with doctors to Alfred’s after his injuries. How do the doctors mislead Alfred?
9. Mary is an extremely headstrong and stubborn character. Yet, when Alfred refuses to taper off his medicine at the reduction clinic, Mary does not protest at all. Why does Mary let Alfred descend so far into addiction?
10. After her first release from North Brother, Mary abides by her promise not to cook. But as time passes she eventually is drawn back to the profession: first at the bakery, and then at the hospital. How does she justify her decisions, despite the risk to others? Do you think she believes she is responsible for passing Typhoid through her cooking? Why or why not? At what point does she give in to the reality of her predicament?
11. The story is split into three sections: ‘Habeas Corpus’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘His Banner Over Me Is Love. Discuss what each part-title illustrates about the events that happen within the section. 142 Why do you think the Epilogue comes from Mary’s own voice, in the first person? How does this shift affect your reading of the final pages of the story? - Publisher suggested questions