Title: Fever 1793
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrator: Emily Bergl
Pages: 252 pages
Discs: 5 CDs, 5 hours, 46 minutes
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Inc. (Listening Library), c2000.
A thin white arm flopped over the side of the cart as it jostled over the cobblestones.
“Hullo there, good man! called Grandfather. “There is no place for the dead up here. Hullo!”
The man ignored us and pressed on steadily.
“Perhaps he is transporting a poor woman to Rickett’s Circus, like Mr. Carris said,” I suggested.
“She should be moved at night, when good people are safe in their beds. Now what is he doing?”
The man had stopped at the corner of High and Seventh, in front of our coffeehouse.
Grandfather sped up. “Sir, I protest most vehemently!”
I lifted my skirts and ran ahead of Grandfather. An unnamed fear shot through me. My eyes filled with tears.
“No, this is too much,” Grandfather called angrily. “Sir,” he shouted. “Take that away from my home. Off with you now and take your cargo, or I should call the constable.”
The man turned back and looked at Grandfather, then lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow and dumped the woman on the street.
“Mother!” I screamed. (61-62)
Fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook has survived the death of her father and is living with her mother and grandfather at the family coffeehouse in Philadelphia, the capital of the United States back in 1793. There’s no need to worry about the rumors of fever hitting the unsanitary dock area, even when their serving girl Polly falls ill and quickly dies. But then fever starts hitting closer to home, and Mattie’s mother is afflicted. Left in the care of their African-American cook, Mattie and her grandfather flee the city. But who will accept the refuges from a city with an epidemic? And when the all clear to return is finally given, what will Mattie find waiting for her?
It’s immediately obvious that Laurie Halse Anderson has done her research. Not only is each chapter begun with a quote from a primary source, but the appendix at the end (which surprisingly the audiobook also contains) is very comprehensive, including information about the epidemic, the citizens of Philadelphia, and life in medicine during that post-colonial time period. You learn a lot about that time period that I’ve never heard of, like the Free African Society, the controversy that surrounded using leeches to bleed fever patients, and the Peale family’s first natural history museum. Anderson doesn’t skimp on the details, and actually promises to her daughters in the acknowledgements that she vows “never ever to tell another chamber pot story.” (252) I’m grateful for that background information, persistence (she started writing this story before Speak), and also for the dates that accompany the chapter headings as they help identify the progression of time.
Everyone who has read this book seems to reference Jim Murphy’s nonfiction title An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (which subsequently won a Newbery Honor). They were published within about a year of each other. But as Laurie Halse Anderson tells it — and you can read the whole interview here — she didn’t even realize that Jim Murphy was writing that book:
Found out years later incidentally that at the same time period, Jim Murphy was also there. We didn’t know each other then. And he was researching what became his non-fiction book about that exact same epidemic. So he must have seen the same article and really got the same wave length. It’s very cool. The books are taught together. And that’s lovely.
I was engrossed by Mattie’s story, which seemed to be filled with twists and turns that I refuse to reveal. She’s got guts and spirit and isn’t afraid of dreaming of a better future and working towards it. Mattie is not going to take the easy way out and she assumes her responsibilities admirably. The best way I can think of to describe her is self-sufficient and strong-minded. Although she’s still young by today’s standards, and I liked the hint of a romance between her and a painter’s apprentice named Nathaniel, which I think has a future. Grandfather is also a well-crafted character (strong emphasis on character), and I kind of wish I knew him in real life. The same could be said about Eliza, their cook, who is a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners kind of woman.
Overall, it’s a realistic, relatable story that really forces you to ask the question of what would you do.