Fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook lives with her widowed mother above the Philadelphia coffee shop they own and helps run the family business. She dislikes doing chores and has grand dreams to someday turn the shop into something far more than what it currently is. But in the summer of 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever breaks out, leaving the city reeling and turning Mattie's world upside down. People she's known all her life are falling ill and dying, and then her own mother takes ill, too. When her mother makes a fevered plea for Mattie to leave the city, she heads for a nearby town with her grandfather. But soon they learn that the disease is everywhere and they can't outrun it. Eventually young Mattie must learn how to survive in a city that seems to have gone mad, and gradually she finds the strength and determination within herself to make her own way in the world.
Occasionally I enjoy reading books that are aimed more toward kids, because they can be just as good as adult books. Laurie Halse Anderson is an authors who's been on my radar for some time, so I decided to start my journey through her books with Fever 1793. I love historical fiction, and this one gives a fictional account of the yellow fever epidemic that hit Philadelphia in late 1793, killing over five thousand people. I've heard of a number of epidemics throughout history, but I'm not sure that I'd ever read anything about this specific one. It was made all the more interesting, because the United States was just coming off the Revolutionary War at the time and was still a fledgling country, whose capitol was then Philadelphia. Many of the patriots and founding fathers, including President Washington, left the city for safer areas. Those who stayed behind were obviously hit the hardest, and there were many people who IMHO were heroes for doctoring and nursing the sick, some of them coming down with the disease and dying themselves. It was a rather bleak chapter in our history as a nation but one that I found very interesting.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Mattie, a fourteen year old girl who helps her widowed mother run a coffee house, something that was all the rage at the time (and apparently still is :-)). She's a very smart, independent young lady, but one who's perhaps a tad lazy as the story opens. She has grand dreams of expanding the coffee house to include a store and of traveling to Paris to bring back all sorts of fripperies to sell, but at the same time, she rather dislikes the day-to-day grind of running the family business. That all changes when the epidemic hits. Within a few months time, Mattie grows and changes as she deals with the fallout of this brutal disease. She must leave her sick mother behind in an effort to flee the plague and eventually loses someone very close to her. When she returns, not knowing what became of her mother, she must grow up almost overnight to take charge of several different situations, but she manages to handle them all with strength and dignity. I have to give the author kudos for writing a strong female protagonist. Mattie was a very admirable heroine, who is a great role model for young girls.
Fever 1793 is a wonderful book for all kids, middle grade and up, although because of it's female lead, it will probably appeal more to girls. The effects of the yellow fever can be pretty brutal (obviously a lot of people lost their lives, and some people were so scared by it, they even left loved ones in the streets to die) and the author doesn't gloss any of this over. However, I certainly didn't find anything to be overly shocking or in any way inappropriate for the age group (ages 10 and up according to the back cover) at which it's aimed. Some younger, sensitive readers might be bothered by these things, but otherwise, there wasn't any objectionable content, and IMO, the history lesson far outweighs any potential downside. Ms. Anderson even includes an appendix of fascinating historical facts at the very end of the book, and the quotes from persons who experienced this tragedy first-hand that begin each chapter were quite interesting. I also enjoyed the touch of romance between Mattie and Nathaniel. In addition to the strong female lead, I have to give the author credit for including several free African American characters and for highlighting their incredible and selfless contributions in the effort to fight this terrible disease. Overall, Fever 1793 was a really good story. The only reason I dropped a half-star is because it took me just a little while to connect with the characters and the narrative, but once the epidemic hit, I was very engaged. I highly recommend the book for kids middle grade or older who enjoy historical fiction. It was my first read by Laurie Halse Anderson, and after this wonderful book, I'm definitely looking forward to checking out more of her work.
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