Module 10: Fever 1793

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Philadelphia 1793. One of the hottest summers on record.  Head-strong Mattie Cook is desperate to put her plans for her mother’s coffeehouse into action and make something of herself.  Suddenly, fever engulfs the city, sending those with means away to the country as escape and the city’s poor and lonely to fend for themselves as an epidemic spreads from home to home.  Maddie finds herself fighting to survive, alone, in a city that has turned into a cemetery.

APA Reference:  Anderson, L. H. (199?) Fever 1793. New York, NY:  

Fever 1793 is an example of historical fiction featuring fictional characters in a real situation, in this case the Yellow Fever outbreak that killed thousands of people in Philadelphia at the end of the summer of 1793. The story follows Mattie, daughter of a coffee house owner, as she watches the devastation the fever brings unfold around her. Her own family is afflicted and scattered. Mattie narrowly survives the fever only to find herself alone and wandering the streets of a disease-ridden Philadelphia.

Over the course of the two evenings that I read the book, I found myself dreaming about Philadelphia and illness! Anderson’s descriptions and details were so vivid and strategically placed in the storyline (ex., the dress Mattie takes out of her mother’s chest when she runs out of clean clothes, the way the sun seemed to bake the cobbled stones of the city, the sights, sounds, and tastes from the open market, the vinegar-soaked clothes and sponges), that they imprinted on my subconcious mind. This is the mark of great historical fiction for me– being transported to a time period and landscape that I have never experienced in person. 

In her author’s notes, Anderson answers several plausible questions her readers might have for her, inculding details about the fever and her inspiration for the story. It’s clear that she spent a great amount of time and care in researching the event to mine the details that would bring her story and characters to life. 

Professional Review:



1793 252 pp. Simon 9/00 ISBN 0-689-83858-1 16.00 (Middle School) Laurie Halse Anderson
For fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook, the epidemic begins with the news of the sudden and unexpected death of her childhood friend Polly. It is summer 1793, and yellow fever is sweeping through Philadelphia; the death toll will reach five thousand (ten percent of the city’s population) before the frost. Mattie, her mother, and grandfather run a coffeehouse on High Street, and when others flee the city, they choose to stay–until Mattie’s mother is stricken. Sent away by her mother to escape contagion, Mattie tries to leave, is turned back by quarantine officers, falls ill herself, and is taken to Bush Hill, a city hospital run by the celebrated French doctor Steven Girard. Without ever being didactic, Anderson smoothly incorporates extensive research into her story, using dialogue, narration, and Mattie’s own witness to depict folk remedies, debates over treatment, market shortages, the aid work done by free blacks to care for and bury the victims, the breakdown of Philadelphia society, and countless tales of sufferers and survivors. With such a wealth of historical information (nicely set forth in a highly readable appendix), it’s a shame that the plot itself is less involving than the situation. While Mattie is tenacious and likable, her adventures are a series of episodes only casually related to the slender narrative arc in which she wonders if her mother has survived the fever and whether they will be reunited. Subplots concerning Mattie’s own entrepreneurial ambitions and her budding romance with a painter apprenticed to the famous Peale family wait offstage until the end of the book. Still, Anderson has gone far to immerse her readers in the world of the 1793 epidemic; most will appreciate this book for its portrayal of a fascinating and terrifying time in American history.
By Anita L. Burkam

L. Burkam, A. (2000). Fever 1793 [Review of book Fever 1793]Horn Book Magazine76(5), 562-563.

Library Uses:
A text set featuring Fever 1793 and other similar historical fiction titles featuring heroines overcoming enormous odds might engage teen readers in a new genre.  In addition, to Fever 1793, this set might include Chains (also by Anderson), Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, and The  Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. 

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