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Fever 1793


Fever 1793

August, 1793. Heat hangs ominously over the city of Philadelphia in what seems to fourteen-year-old Mattie like a never-ending heat wave. Everyone is cranky and tired, especially Mattie's mother, who hasn't been the same since Mattie's father died. Everyone is also very afraid.

On the day the news arrives that Polly, the shop's serving girl and Mattie's friend has died, Mattie hears the first gossip of a mysterious illness. Rumor has it that down by the docks, where Polly lives, a fever is running rampant. Mattie's mother forbids her to visit Polly's family, for fear she too will get the fever. But to Mattie, who wants to go to the market, down to the docks, and hopefully run into Nathaniel Benson, none of it feels real.

Until the fever and the fear move closer to her home. Soon enough the sick count throughout Philadelphia climbs, the bell tolls in more dead as steadily as a heartbeat, and the graveyards fill. And still the hot, diseased air clings to the emptying city. It's official: Yellow Fever, which almost surely means death.  

Throughout Laurie Halse Anderson's second novel, you are immersed in Mattie's world. When the fever starts, the heat and heaviness come off the pages in waves, leaving you breathing carefully, as if to avoid impure air, and wanting to wash your hands immediately to rid yourself of germs. Even before the fever takes hold, historic Philadelphia is vividly described, from Mattie's outfit to the furniture and dishware in the coffee shop. And the bathing habits? No thank you! Often Mattie mentions swatting away mosquitoes that swarm the hot, cloudy skies. Today, we know these mosquitoes could have been responsible for the spread of the epidemic, and you can't help but be thankful we have the technology and knowledge to deal with West Nile's.  

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is witnessing the reactions the illness brings out in seemingly average people. The cruelty that the frenzy dictates: abandoning sick friends and family, throwing those whose eyes have the slightest yellow tint to die in the streets, and locking the doors against anyone in need. This, aside the incredible acts that Mattie, among others, give themselves to: bringing food to those no one will go near, let alone touch, changing the filthy bedsheets and clothes of those in the throes of the sickness. It makes you wonder --- which side would you fall on? Would you have the courage Mattie exhibits?  

FEVER is a shining example of historic fiction. It draws you in and keeps you riveted throughout. At first, Maggie is a young, normal girl who argues with her mother and wants to cut work to see her crush. But she learns --- too quickly, unfairly --- the value of family, kindness and work. She grows into a heroine to be admired. The novel is so realistic and well-written, you may actually feel the chill of a fever coming on. And that's a sure sign of a really good book.

Reviewed by Kate Torpie on September 1, 2000

Fever 1793
by Laurie Halse Anderson

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2000
  • Hardcover: 251 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0689838581
  • ISBN-13: 9780689838583