Monday, May 28, 2012

A world falls apart

Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

"How could the city have changed so much? Yellow fever was wrestling the life out of Philadelphia, infecting the cobblestones, the trees, the nature of the people. Was I living through another nightmare?"

Fever, 1793 opens on a hot summer day in Philadelphia in 1793. Our heroine, the somewhat lazy 16-year-old Matilda "Mattie" Cook, is just trying to rouse herself from bed. Mattie's mother and grandfather run a thriving coffeehouse that is a central hub of the young nation's then capital city. We can see Philadelphia and its wide variety of people from Mattie's interesting vantage point. She comes into contact with African-American servants, businessmen, government officials, and well-do-so Philadelphia society. Then yellow fever envelopes the city and Mattie's world collapses.

Young readers (Publisher's Weekly recommends the book for ages 10 to 14) will quickly become engrossed in Mattie's world and be amazed at how quickly a comfortable and secure young life can come apart. It is clear that the loved and somewhat coddled Mattie isn't ready to grow up, but history pushes on, sweeping Mattie up in its current. Mattie, and the city of Philadelphia will be forever changed after the hot, death-filled late summer of 1793.

The plot moves along relatively well, although at times it seemed that the pace could have been quicker. The characters are diverse and realistic, and the portrait of the time and place is vivid. Each chapter begins with an actual quote from the times, which sets a tone of reality before each fictional scene. The books ends with a short history of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which was an interesting read on its own.

Why you should consider it:
  • the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia is a fascinating part of early U.S. history that kids will probably enjoy learning about
  • the characters are well developed and many kids will identify with the sheltered, but ultimately strong, Mattie
  • the book is light on graphic violence and other heavy themes

Why you might hold off:
  • at times the plot seemed to stall a bit and very reluctant readers may lose interest. For most kids, though, the book will hold their attention
Local alert: Many New Jersey kids are within a stone's throw of Philadelphia, where Mattie's story takes place. Many 18th century homes are still there -- giving kids and adults a feeling for Mattie's world. See here for a quick walking tour of Mattie's city.

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