Reader Recommendation: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Matilda Cook lives in Philadelphia when it was the nation’s capital and home to an historic epidemic: Yellow Fever. In a time when basic hygiene included weekly baths and deciding if a dead mouse is worse thrown onto high street or into the back garden. Water came from wells, the outhouse was referred to as “The Necessary” and the best way to rid someone of “pestilence” was to bleed them. You read that right. BLEED THEM. Historically accurate, yes, but appalling nonetheless.
I read this book in a single day. I couldn’t put it down. I was moved to tears at points and at others found myself truly pulling for the characters whose basic personality traits made them feel already familiar from the first page.
Like any good Historical Fiction writer, Anderson did her research and imbued the novel with it. Historical figures were sprinkled in amongst the imagined characters, and the geography of Philadelphia and the surrounding towns was portrayed accurately enough that the reader can follow Mattie through town without getting lost. The facts of the fever, the panic, and the restoration are outlined in an appendix at the back of the book. The charity group of freed slaves is one of the unsung heros of this tragedy: while the rest of society turned its collective back on the infected (to the point that some who might have lived starved to death instead) The Free African Society rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
As I read, I drew parallels between the fear of Yellow Fever in the book and the fear of various modern diseases now (SARS and H1N1, most notably) and the way people react. If an epidemic were to sweep through the countries most dense cities now, would we react the way the Philadelphians did? Would we barricade ourselves in our houses and send our children to the country? Would help be available and would it come in time? So much has advanced in the past two hundred years, but so much has stayed the same.
When the first signs of Yellow Fever were popping up, life outside of it went on - Mattie helped her widowed mother, grandfather, and their servant Eliza (A freed African Woman) run the family coffeehouse. She sucked on hard candy and flirted with boys at the market. But as the tragedy got closer and closer to home (literally, as it moved inland from the river) life slowly changed. As the panic and illness spread, Mattie is forced to grow up and becomes a very good example of what a young lady can do when she puts her mind to it.
I would not be surprised to see this book turn up on curriculum lists alongside Johnny Tremain - it would do our young girls a great service to know that not just young men helped make this country what it is. That even in a time when girls needed a decent dowry and husband to be considered worth much (and even still needed to produce more boys) these same girls were also truly inspirational.