In 1793, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. It was also the US’s largest city: a busy, bustling port city of 50,000 people, the size of today’s Flagstaff, Carson City, Biloxi. And then one day that summer, people started dying of yellow fever. There was no knowledge about how the disease was passed, no respite, and no cure. People tried bleeding, boiled vinegar, burning their clothes, isolating the sick; nothing worked. They died of the fever, but also of exposure, of hunger (farmers were not allowed into the quarantined city to sell their goods), and of violence in streets thick with thieves and desperadoes. In the end, after the epidemic, five thousand were dead — ten percent of the population of Philadelphia.
Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson, recounts this terrible epidemic — one of the worst in America’s history — from the point of view of Mattie Cook, a sixteen-year-old girl. Mattie lives with her mother and grandfather at their coffeehouse, and dreams of the day she will be old enough to have her own way for a change. She doesn’t like hard work or taking baths, she loves eating sweets and flirting with Nathan Peale — and then her friend Polly dies of the yellow fever, and everything is changed. Mattie’s world transforms from a safe, happy place where her most serious concern is how she’ll get out of pulling weeds in the garden to a place where she doesn’t know whether her mother is alive or dead, robbers lurk outside her door, and the weeds in the garden are an almost-welcome source of food. Mattie has to learn to grow up, or she’ll die — and she may die anyway.
A couple of years back, I read Anderson’s most famous young adult novel, Speak. That’s the reason I picked this one up. Speak was better crafted than this: there was more tension, more edge, more tautness in the writing, and despite the life-or-death situation in Fever 1793, there seemed to be more at stake in Speak. That said, I enjoyed this book. It was a fast-paced, exciting novel, and I learned a lot from it (the fact that there was an epidemic in Philadelphia at all, for instance.) I learned that Philadelphians leaned heavily on freed African-American citizens to help them, believing at first that black people couldn’t contract yellow fever. I learned that Western societies’ control of mosquitoes is what keeps us from this kind of calamity now.
Anderson draws a vivid picture of a terrible situation, and one girl’s reaction to it. If you’re looking for a quick, enjoyable young-adult read, for you or for someone you know, I’d recommend this… but I’d recommend Speak first.