Fever 1793 is an award-winning young adult novel by Laurie Halse Anderson about the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793. It was published in 2000, but, of course, it seems very timely today. The protagonist is fourteen-year-old Matilda (“Mattie”) Cook, who lives in the apartment above her family’s coffee shop with her hard-working mother and her grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran. Eliza, a freed slave, is the family’s cook and seems like a second mother to Mattie. She is actually closer to Eliza than to her own mother, who is always scolding her for not doing her chores. Mattie’s father, a carpenter, had died in a fall from a ladder when Mattie was four years old. It is suggested that her mother came from a higher social class and has aspirations for Mattie. In an early scene, we find out that she wants to marry Mattie off to the son of a wealthy family. Mattie has dreams of going to Paris, expanding the coffee shop, and opening a store that sells the latest French fashions, but she has no desire to marry the rich man’s son. Instead, she has a crush on Nathaniel, a painter’s apprentice.
The fever hits Philadelphia in the summer of 1793, and one of the first victims is the family’s maid, Polly, who had been Mattie’s childhood friend. One day Polly is perfectly healthy, and the next day she’s dead. Soon the fever spreads throughout the city. At first many people, including Mattie’s grandfather, are skeptical about the fever. The grandfather has seen many fever outbreaks in his long life, and this seems no worse than any other. As more and more people die, though, he realizes that this is like no other fever he’s ever seen.
When Mattie’s mother becomes ill, she sends Mattie and her grandfather to the countryside, where she thinks they will be safer. The farmer who is supposed to drive them in his cart to the farm where they’re supposed to stay refuses to go any further when the grandfather starts coughing, and he drives away with their food and clothing. Mattie and her grandfather are left stranded, and she has to learn to survive, and take care of both her grandfather and herself. Eventually they make it back to the city, but Mattie gets sick, and they go to a hospital, where she gets the best care available at the time, from the French doctor who runs the hospital, and she recovers.
They return to the coffee shop, but they find it has been ransacked, and Mattie’s mother has disappeared. She had gone looking for Mattie in the countryside when she had not heard from her, and has not returned to the city. Food is in extremely short supply in Philadelphia, because farmers won’t go into the city to sell their products in the marketplace, and people are desperately searching for food wherever they can get it. When robbers break into the shop at night, Mattie has to fight them off. She realizes it’s not safe to stay there, so she turns to Eliza, a member of the Free African Society, who is helping to nurse the sick and care for the orphans, for help. Will Mattie be able to survive until her mother returns?
Laurie Halse Anderson has written a very powerful novel about the horrifying conditions in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic. This epidemic really happened, and it killed 5000 people, 10 percent of the city’s population, in three months. Of course, readers today cannot help but see similarities to the current pandemic, and there are many of them. The city was quarantined, and people who left, as Mattie’s mother did, could not go back until the worst of the fever was over. There were terrible food shortages, because farmers could not enter the city. The mail slowed down, then stopped altogether. Businesses were closed for lack of customers, and because people were afraid the fever would spread. People did not wear masks at the time, but there are references to people wearing rags over their faces. There were also people who were skeptics, and said this fever was no worse than any other, until it hit them or their families.
At that time, of course, people did not have the medical knowledge that they do today, and most doctors thought the fever was caused by bad air. Anderson writes about the different practices of American and French doctors, in treating the disease. American doctors, led by Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, believed in bleeding the patient, which actually weakened people and caused them to get worse. French doctors, like the one in charge of the hospital where Mattie is treated, believed in fresh air, rest, and a lot of fluids, and more of their patients recovered. Many of the French doctors had been to the West Indies and seen yellow fever before.
Anderson also writes about the role played by the Free African Society, an antislavery society whose members were freed slaves, in helping the city to recover from the epidemic. Members of the society went all over the city to nurse the sick, and to help the children orphaned by the disease. Eliza is one of the strongest characters in the book, and some of the most powerful scenes show how she cares for Mattie, for her own two nephews who have lost their mother, and whose father has been ill, and for an orphaned girl Mattie discovers in an abandoned house. Mattie herself is also a strong character, hard-working, even though she grumbles about doing chores, and very loyal to those she loves. She grows stronger because of her experiences during the epidemic, and because of Eliza’s example. I highly recommend this book, and it is an excellent choice to read in these times. It was written for the 10-14 age group, but is suitable for all ages.
Fever 1793 is available from the Children's Literature Collection in the Hatcher Graduate Library.