Fever 1793

Fever 1793“I woke to the sound a mosquito whining in my left ear and my mother screeching in the right.” —Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson

I think I have mentioned on this blog that left to his own devices, my son’s reading list would consist only of science fiction with the occasional distopian novel thrown in here and there. Despite the stack of diverse books I have suggested (and purchased), he has read about a dozen sci-fi books gleaned from thrift stores this summer and nothing else. Time for  a mama to get strategic.

Luckily for us both, he still loves for me to read to him. So this summer, I suggested Fever 1973 which had been on my radar forever. I did not realize until very recently that it is considered to be a companion novel to Chains and Forge that we read several years ago together. I guess they are linked in the approximate time period, but this novel stands alone in my mind since none of the characters overlap as they do in Chains and Forge.

Most succinctly, this is the story of the well-documented yellow fever epidemic that swept the city of Philadelphia in the late summer of 1793. Thousands fell ill, thousands perished, and nearly worse, thousands fled to the countryside to escape the disease. The city became an island of death and deprivation–there wasn’t adequate food, medicine, or people to care for the dead, dying, or lucky few survivors and orphans. Anderson did terrific research to write the book and provides an extensive appendix about different historical facts.

Of course the story is told through the eyes of  child, the 11 year old Mattie, who lives and works grudgingly in her mother’s coffeehouse along with her Grandfather, a war veteran, and a couple of hired help, the free African American cook, Eliza, and the scullery maid, Polly. The epidemic splits her family, and shatters their lifestyle and livelihood. I won’t do spoilers, but Mattie faces tragedy, hardship, and loss that transforms her outlook and ambitions. The book is a coming of age story as a result.

My son felt like this was a much sadder book than the infamous Where the Red Fern Grows, and I have to agree although compared to the loss some people probably experienced, fictional Mattie and her family fared quite well. But I was happy for my son and I to learn more about this period in American history and to expose him to different emotional aspects of the human experience. Just a little stretch beyond spaceships and galactic battles…

personal copy
Simon & Schuster, 2000

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