Laurie Halse Anderson's Fever, 1793 is a novel about a fourteen-year-old girl named Matilda "Mattie" Cook who comes of age during the infamous yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793. Mattie is, for the most part, just a normal teenager. Her body is changing, she can't stand the sound of her mother's voice, and she has a mega crush on a cute painter guy named Nathaniel Benson. The outbreak of yellow fever, though, creates a dire situation (not at all related to hormones) in the city she calls home. Once known for its brotherly love, Philadelphia is transformed into a nightmare of orphaned children, unscrupulous thieves, and mass unmarked graves. It's kind of like the set of one of those apocalyptic movies, except, of course, it's all really happening.
Over the course of the novel, Mattie will experience intense personal loss and come face-to-face with death. She must also fight the tide of panic and fear raging in the city – and within herself. To win the battle, Mattie has to muster every ounce of her courage, strength, and morality. A true test of who she is, the fever will become one of the defining moments of Mattie's life.
While Laurie Halse Anderson's thrilling young adult novel may at times have the feel of an apocalyptic zombie movie, the remarkable thing about it is that the events in Fever, 1793 are firmly grounded in historical fact. Anderson conducted loads of archival research for the book, and she gets all of the facts straight. Mattie and her family are works of fiction, but the fever outbreak did indeed strike Philadelphia in the late summer of 1793. And the results were just as devastating as the novel reports. According to estimates, between four and five thousand people died from the plague.
Anderson's remarkable research skills bring home the magnitude of the situation as each chapter is prefaced with rather moving passages from historical documents from the period: scraps of letters, diaries, and even novels. The quotations weave a dense historical tapestry that suggests that Mattie's experience was in no way singular. The yellow fever epidemic affected a large chunk of the country and deeply impacted an entire generation of Philadelphians, including many famous historical figures such as Dr. Benjamin Rush, President George Washington (heard of the guy?), and Alexander Hamilton, who himself came down with a case of the fever.
Though the setting is old, the questions that Fever, 1793 asks are timeless. The novel makes us think about what we would do in such a state of disaster. With public health crises such as AIDS and influenza, and the devastating losses caused by hurricanes, volcanoes, and earthquakes, our own time has seen its fair share of full-on emergencies too. These situations bring out the best, and sometimes the worst, in people. While these events give us moments of intense pain, they are also opportunities to show our humanity, learn how to empathize, and give aid and comfort to fellow human beings. Would you only help your own family, or would you, like Mattie, try your best to help everyone the human family? Fever, 1793 asks us to think about how our reactions to large-scale catastrophic events, and the horrors of human suffering, define who we are as a generation, as a country, and as human beings.
Fever, 1793 is Laurie Halse Anderson's second novel for young adults and was published in 2000. Celebrated by librarians, parents, and teenagers alike, the book was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults. A prolific novelist, Anderson has also published Speak (1999), Catalyst (2002), and Wintergirls (2009). Her novel Chains (2008) is another work of historical fiction, chronicling the life of a young slave girl in 1776. Chairs was a National Book Award finalist.
Why Should I Care?
Shmoop confession: We love zombie movies. Big time.
The masses of dead? The blood and the gore? The eating of the brains? Yes, yes, and more yes.
Zombie movies give us that awesome scare we crave, and get this: the films are also usually pretty smart. The genre is known for doling out the social commentary; that is, zombie films often become a way of dramatizing larger fears and anxieties in our culture and commenting upon them.
Example? George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. You know, the one where zombies attack a group of people who lock themselves in a shopping mall? Yeah. A more scathing critique of American consumerism you're unlikely to find on the big screen. (Academic eggheads just love to debate this film. Really. Check out this site.) Plus scary. And there are zombies!
This all bring us to Fever, 1793, a book that we also totally love. Why? Well, because it's got all the qualities of a good zombie movie: terror on the streets, the encroaching threat of infection, and a city of nightmarish apocalypse filled with the living dead. Yup. This is zombie movie territory, most definitely.
But just a like a Romero film, Fever, 1793, isn't all horror and gore. It's also a darn smart book. The novel makes us think about things like our own society's fear of outsiders (remember how everyone is always blaming the refugees for the spread of the fever?), and how we respond in a crisis situation. After all, the way in which we react to catastrophes like the yellow fever epidemic can come to define who we are as a society – and as humans.
And oh, one last thing: unlike all those zombie movies, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 was totally and completely real. That's right. The masses of dead? The gore and the blood? It all actually happened. How's that for scary?