Plot summary: Fourteen-year-old Matilda “Mattie” Cook lives with her mother, Lucille, and her grandfather in 1793 Philadelphia. The family resides above a coffeehouse that Matilda helps to run, along with the coffeehouse cook, a free African-American woman named Eliza. Mattie lives the life of a typical teenager: she often argues with her mother, she daydreams, and she has a crush on a handsome painter’s apprentice named Nathaniel Benson. Things change, however, when, Polly, the server at the coffeehouse, does not come to work. Mattie learns that Polly has come down with yellow fever, and is shocked when Polly quickly dies. Mattie becomes more and more frightened as her neighbors and friends catch the fever. When her mother shows signs of having it, Mattie is sent with her grandfather to stay in the country where she is less likely to fall ill. As she and her grandfather are leaving the city, however, they are mistaken by the town guards as already being infected with the fever. The two are forced to remain in Philadelphia, and soon Mattie finds that she has contracted the illness. As Mattie fights to survive, she must cope with the impact of the epidemic on her life and how things will never be the same.
Review: This tale based on the real yellow fever epidemic of 1793 is heartbreaking but inspiring as well. Anderson’s descriptions of the city of Philadelphia in the grips of the epidemic are very realistic and set the tone perfectly for Mattie’s story. While the character of Mattie is fictional, it is likely that someone very much just like her did exist in the summer of 1793, and tweens will appreciate being put in the shoes of someone who survived a horrible epidemic. The transition from Mattie’s life before the epidemic and her existence after are stark. Many readers will be able to identify with some of what Mattie is growing through: the death of her father, arguing with her single mother, longing for the handsome and kind Nathaniel. In many ways, Mattie is a typical teenage girl which makes what she must cope with after the epidemic takes hold all the more harrowing. Readers will learn quite a bit about the yellow fever epidemic as well as the city of Philadelphia in colonial times. The research Anderson put in to composing the story is evident, and serves to create an entertaining story hidden within a history lesson. Overall, Fever, 1793 is a very engaging novel for tweens.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reading level: Grades 5-9
Similar titles: N/A
Personal thoughts: As a history buff, I really enjoyed Fever, 1793. I don’t think that it’s a book for everyone, many tweens might find it a bit too historical or descriptive, but it is certain to be enjoyable for quite a few readers as well. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of Mattie’s life pre- and post-epidemic, especially because epidemics still occur today. This book definitely has classroom applications, and I would also recommend it for tweens interested in historical fiction.
Themes: Yellow fever, Philadelphia, colonial times, single parents, coping with illness and loss.
Awards/Reviews: Positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Booklist, New York Times Book Review and VOYA.
Series Information: N/A
Matilda “Mattie” Cook – Fourteen-year-old living in 1793 Philadelphia. She lives with her mother, whom she often argues with, and her grandfather. When friends and neighbors become ill with the yellow fever, her mother sends her away to the country to avoid getting sick.
Captain William Farnsworth Cook – Mattie’s grandfather and a former military man. He accompanies Mattie as she flees the city to avoid catching the fever.
Lucille Cook - Mattie’s mother who was widowed after Mattie’s father died suddenly. She eventually becomes ill with the yellow fever and sends Mattie away.
Nathaniel Benson – A kind and handsome painter’s apprentice that Mattie admires quite a bit.
Eliza – A free African-American woman who is the cook at the coffeehouse where Mattie works. She is one of Mattie’s best friends.
Annotation: Fourteen-year-old Mattie’s life will never be the same when her town, Philadelphia, falls into the grips of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.