Fever 1793 opens with 14 year old Mattie waking up, wanting desperately to roll back over and go to sleep instead of getting up to help in the coffee shop her mother owns. It’s easy for a modern reader to identify with her. She has a crush on a boy her mother doesn’t quite approve of. She fears she can’t do anything right and that she’s a disappointment to her mother. She’s on the cusp of adulthood, wanting the privileges but still chaffing at the responsibilities of growing up.
Then her world changes dramatically as yellow fever strikes her hometown of Philadelphia. It’s not a pretty story, full of tragedy and death, yet it ends hopefully, with Mattie waking up early and going downstairs to get started on the chores for the coffee shop she now runs. Only 4 months have passed, but she’s grown up tremendously.
The book is well researched and informative, and seeing the epidemic through Mattie’s eyes gives it a personal and emotional angle that reading about it on Wikipedia just doesn’t. Several pages of historical notes at the end help put Mattie’s story into the larger picture.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Death & Illness
This is a big one—the book is full of illness and death. There is some graphic though straightforward and factual description of the symptoms of yellow fever, including vomiting black gunk and blood. There are descriptions of bodies, occasionally even left in the streets. There are carts going through the streets, collecting the dead and taking them to mass graves. Medical procedures include bleeding and dosing with mercury. Mattie’s mother and then Mattie herself get sick and we see the symptoms as she experiences them. The most emotional death, though, is Mattie’s grandfather. It’s hard to know exactly what he dies of—he’s been sick on and off throughout the book, but never with the fever—but Mattie is alone with him and must deal with his death both practically and emotionally. His burial made me a little teary.
Anyone feared to have the fever is treated horribly—turned out, abandoned, left to die. At one point, an old woman hits Mattie with a stick to drive her away, even though Mattie has now recovered. Thieves break into Mattie’s home and one of them hits her several times. Her grandfather tries to shoot her attacker and is himself attacked. Mattie stabs the thief with her grandfather’s sword, injuring him and frightening him off. Mattie’s grandfather dies moments after this encounter.
During this era, it’s not easy for a woman alone and certainly a woman’s options are limited, but mostly this is just background to the story. The women we meet—Mattie, her mother, their cook Eliza—are all strong and self-sufficient women.
There are a number of freed slaves who are characters in the book, particularly Eliza who cooks for the coffee house. There’s no question that they’re second class citizens, but Mattie seems a bit oblivious to it. She lives with Eliza and her family after her grandfather dies, and she helps the Free African Society as they care for families affected by the fever—there’s a theory that the blacks don’t get the fever, but it turns out this isn’t true. In the end, Mattie asks Eliza to be her partner in reopening the coffee house. Eliza’s brother insists that they do it legally so that other people won’t think Eliza is taking advantage of Mattie. Mattie has taken in an orphaned girl who plays with Eliza’s nephews. Overall, although there are signs of racism in the setting, it’s background to the story and Mattie seems immune to it.
There are very obvious tiers to society, and there’s nothing like an epidemic to drive it home. Those with wealth and someplace to escape do so. It’s clear that Mattie’s family is merchant class—not up to the standards of many, but with some potential for social mobility. This is part of why Mattie’s mother disapproves of the boy she has a crush on. The lower classes are grouped together, often near the docks. The illness hits them hard. That said, no tier of society is excluded from the fever.
There’s a fairly fluid definition of family in this book. Eliza is nearly a mother to Mattie. Mattie’s grandfather is her dead father’s father, yet he lives with her and her mother. Mattie takes in a fever orphan, raising her as part of the family. Necessity causes people to band together, regardless of blood. On the other hand, it’s made clear that fear of the fever also caused some families to abandon their own.
God and Religion
There are many prayers to God. The Free African Society is a religious organization, and they play a large role in caring for the sick. A minor character suggests that the fever is God’s justice against sinners. The scene where Mattie reads the 23rd Psalm as her beloved grandfather is buried in a mass grave is very touching. Faith is an undercurrent throughout the book, but it’s seldom analyzed or questioned.
This book is appropriate for readers, maybe 9 and up, who can handle a bludgeoningly sad story. It’s particularly good for those interested in history. The plot moves at a quick pace, so the information is passed along pretty painlessly as part of the story. I’m glad my daughter is discussing this book at school, but I also want to point out that books like this are one of the reasons I think it’s important to find well written light and funny books for her to read on her own.
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published in 2000 by Simon & Schuster
Read my daughter’s copy from school