Ever since Covid-19 broke out across the world, there’s been a lot of talk about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. I’ve also heard historians, especially medievalists, called upon to talk about the bubonic plague of the 1300’s, and I’ve seen Daniel Defoe’s 1722 book, A Journal of the Plague Year, added to many people’s reading lists! All of this makes sense. People are curious about pandemics of the past and how people coped (spiritually, physically, psychologically) with rampant infectious diseases.
That curiosity is what drove me to read Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a YA (Young Adult) novel published originally twenty years ago, but it definitely has a lot of relevance today. It’s about an epidemic that you may not have heard of: the outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793.
This outbreak was devastating, resulting in the tragic death of nearly 5,000 in just three months – 10% of the city’s population. Fever is historical fiction which is deeply rooted in fact and proved to be a really interesting read. Anderson is a children’s writer whose work I always enjoy and who clearly has a huge affection for and knowledge of this time period. This book is a look at the devastating effects of the yellow fever epidemic through the eyes of the thirteen year old girl, Matilda Cook, living in the city during that time.
In this post, I’ll talk about the book itself and then in the next ‘Madeira Mondays’ I’ll go into some more depth about the real outbreak of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia. I’ve had some reader requests to talk more about 18th century medicine and disease on this blog, which is a fascinating topic and one that I’m happy to delve into. Disease is something that is clearly on our minds a lot of the time these days. For now, though, let’s have a look at the book…
Laurie Halse Anderson is most well-known for her popular YA novel Speak, which is set at a contemporary high school and tells a really harrowing (yet often surprisingly funny) story of a girl who has been sexually assaulted and is trying to figure out how to move forward with her life. I remember reading it when I was about twelve or thirteen and being so amazed by it’s immediacy, and really feeling like Anderson got teenagers, especially teenage girls. Speak came out in 1999, way, way before ‘Me too’, but it definitely anticipated some of those conversations. It’s a very excellent book, although a bit of a tough read at times, as you’d expect.
Fever is similar to Speak in the sense that we get another vivid teenage girl’s voice here. Also similar to Speak, Anderson deals with really intense emotions and quite frightening subject matter with specificity, restraint and with (more or less) never sensationalizing. She evokes Maddie’s thoughts and her world with such precision that it’s always transportive and engaging. Take this passage, where we see Philadelphia through Maddie’s mournful point of view, where every detail evokes that sadness she is feeling at a really difficult part of the story:
I passed people weeping in doorways and did not stop. I heard death carts rattling in the street and did not look up.
A breeze picked up, pushing me eastward, towards the docks, east towards the water, away from the sun. I could see the tops of the ships’ masts, peeking over the rooftops like trees in the dead of winter. The sodden wharf planks moaned as the tide pulled the river water towards the open sea. My mind floated with dark thoughts.
The planks ‘moan’. The masts are ‘trees in the dead of winter’. The breeze goes ‘away from the sun’. Anderson is an excellent writer. I blazed through this book (it was very suspenseful!) but when you slow down and look at the prose, you see that it’s really very well constructed and always contributing towards a certain tone. In this case, a tone of sadness and mourning.
Her knowledge of historical details was also pretty faultless. There was only one teeny tiny thing, as I was reading this book, which struck me as possibly ‘inaccurate’ (it was about an item of clothing) but then I looked it up and it turns out that Anderson was right and I was wrong! She knows this time period. She knows the food, especially. Maddie’s family runs a coffeehouse and, as Philadelphia begins to starve, cut off from the rest of the country due to the plague, Maddie dreams of: ‘bowls of oyster stew, or corn soup, a platter of duck, sweet potatoes and buttered beans, Indian pudding with molasses…’. Descriptions like this set my little history loving heart a flutter!
Despite its grim subject matter, it’s a very enjoyable read, mostly due to the vivid voice and all the great historical details. The characters are fairly standard – a plucky young lady, a kindly old grandfather, an overly stern mother etc. But all the research and Anderson’s gift for capturing a teen girl’s point of view really make it shine!
It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve read set in Colonial America, although I don’t think it’s the best. That would still be Johnny Tremain (which was the subject of my first ever ‘Madeira Mondays’ post, back in 2019!!). I still maintain that overall the best fiction written about this time period is children’s fiction (this book, Johnny Tremain, the novels of Ann Rinaldi etc.).
I would absolutely recommend this book to people of all ages, but particularly for teens or younger readers. If you happen to be an educator (or a parent homeschooling at the moment!), you should know that there’s a handy dandy ‘Appendix’ in the back where Anderson talks about the historical research that went into the book and answers common reader questions. I actually learned a lot from this little section, and was especially interested to learn about the ‘Free African Society’ in Philadelphia. This was an aid organization that was originally founded to help widowed, out of work, or ill African-Americans in Philadelphia, but ended up becoming a major provider of care for the sick (of all races) in the city during the yellow fever epidemic. Several characters from the book belong to this society and it was fascinating to hear about the real history.
This book shows that, just like now, during times of crisis there are people who step up to help and there are people who try to take advantage of the situation or only look out for themselves. We meet all sorts in Fever, and it’s interesting to see the parallels (as well as the many differences, thank goodness!) between this epidemic and the situation we’re living through now.
Next ‘Madeira Mondays’, I’ll be talking more about the history of yellow fever: what it is, how it was treated, and the impact it had on early America. Stay tuned!
Have you ever read or heard of Fever, 1793? Have you found yourself seeking out any sort of books/film/TV depicting plagues or infectious diseases? Any recommendations?
Recommended Further Reading:
- Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (of course!) but also her Seeds of America series, which is about an escaped slave in Colonial New York during the Revolution. The first book in the series is called Chains. It’s excellent!
- This page on Anderson’s website has lots more about the book including educational resources
- PBS has a brief overview of the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia here
PS Today’s Featured Image is a map of Philadelphia from 1796. You can view the whole map here.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!