Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is another example of first-class literature for young adults. The story is about the deadly yellow fever epidemic that dessimated Philadelphia in 1793. Matilda, the heroine of the story, is a teen-aged girl who has a mother who nags her and a grandfather who dotes on her. Considering the times, Matilda is a refreshingly sassy character. She has a sly wit and a bright and capable mind. When the fever comes too close to comfort, Matilda and her grandfather flee the city to go to the country.
Matilda doesn’t make it to the country. Instead, she faces the chaos of the epidemic on her own. Matilda has the smarts to make it through until the first frost, when the mosquitos that carried the disease were killed. But, she’s not the same girl as she was a few months before.
Philadelphia did suffer a yellow fever epidemic in 1973. It was the capital of the young United States of America, and George Washington–in his second term of office–fled the city for the safer countryside along with masses of Philadeliphia citizens. No one at that time knew how the disease was spread and did not know about germs, viruses, and bacteria. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most prominant American physician, fed his patients toxic mercury and bled them to empty their body of the pestualance. His treatment probably killed more people than he helped. On the other hand, French doctors seemed to have a better handle on the sickness, favoring fresh air, and rest over more gruesome treatments.
Fever 1793 paints a fascinating portrait of life in the early years of the United States during a time of crisis. The character of Matilda is a strong and intelligent character–perhaps a bit out of the docile female stereotype of that era. As a lesson in history, Fever covers social and community structure of an early American town.
Young adult and adult readers will find Anderson’s book engrossing reading. I read the book along with my thirteen year old son and he got caught up in the story from the beginning. I think the story would appeal even more to girls–Matilda is a likeable and strong female character.