Study Guide

Fever, 1793 Family

By Laurie Halse Anderson


I woke to the sound of a mosquito whining in my left ear and my mother screeching in the right.

"Rouse yourself this instant!"

Mother snapped open the shutters and heat poured into our bedchamber. The room above our coffeehouse was not large. Two beds, a washstand, and a wooden trunk with frayed leather straps nearly filled it. It seemed even smaller with Mother storming around. (1.1-1.3)

Matilda has a somewhat antagonistic relationship with her mother, a single parent who works hard to run the family's coffeehouse. What is it about her mother that Matilda finds so difficult to deal with?

I groaned. Mother had been a perfect girl. Her family was wealthy then, but that didn't stop her from stitching entire quilts before breakfast, or spinning miles of wool before tea. It was the War, she liked to remind me. Children did what was asked of them. And she never complained. Oh, no, never. Good children were seen and not heard. How utterly unlike me. (1.7)

The generational difference between mother and daughter widens the gap between their understanding. Clearly! Do you think Mother was really as perfect as Matilda seems to think she was?

We were only three: Mother, Grandfather, and me, plus Eliza who worked for us. But the roomy kitchen could feed one hundred people in a day. My family owned the Cook Coffeehouse. The soon-to-be famous Cooke Coffeehouse, Grandfather like to say. (2.5)

At this point, Matilda's family is very small: it's just Matilda, her grandfather, her mother, and Eliza. They all work together to run the coffeehouse. They're connected by blood and, in a way, by business.

We could have used a sitting room, truth be told. Father would have added one on if he had lived. But he fell off a ladder and died of a broken neck two months after the coffeehouse opened. That's when Grandfather joined us. (2.8)

As we learn here, Matilda's father died in an accident when she was very young (around four years old). Many people have stepped in to fill his shoes. Matilda's mother runs the coffeehouse as a widow, and Grandfather helps out as well. How is Matilda's grandfather also a surrogate father to her?

"Sending her away – your own child? You shock me. The Ludingtons aren't even family. I can't see the wisdom in that. We'll have to consider this at some length," he said, drawing out his pipe. (5.17)

Grandfather objects to sending Matilda to the Ludingtons' farm because they aren't "family." What does family mean to Grandfather? Is family just about blood relations? A geographical location?

Giving my mother a bath felt upside down and backside front. I didn't want to do it. Daughters aren't supposed to bathe their mothers, but Eliza could not manage alone. (9.34)

Once Lucille takes ill, Matilda is the one in charge: she must nurse and bathe her own mother. Talk about turning the tables! The roles in the family are changing, which is, of course, all a part of growing up. Because of the fever, though, it's all happening a little sooner than Matilda would have liked.

"There," he sighed. "That's better. It's time to review your soldiering lessons."

I groaned. From my crawling days, Grandfather had taught me all the tricks of the American and the British armies, and quite a few from the French. Again and again and again. It would do no good to argue. I was his captive. (11.13)

Grandfather is an old soldier who represents an earlier time: the American Revolutionary War (OK, not nearly as far back as it is for us, but still). As such, much of what he teaches his granddaughter is couched in the language of the military. How does Grandfather's advice help Matilda survive the fever? Why doesn't Grandfather himself survive?

"They aren't my family," the farmer said as he motioned for his wife to climb aboard. "They only rode in back the last mile or so. They was walking and we picked them up."

"He's lying!" I shouted.

"I don't have no fever," the farmer continued. "My wife and baby are healthy. Let me just drive through so I can get to Bethlehem by nightfall. We won't stop for nothing." (11.55-11.57)

The outbreak is raging, and it's every family for themselves. The farmer seeks to protect his wife and baby, but by doing so he sells out Matilda and her grandfather. Why does the farmer feel no obligation to protect or care for Matilda and her grandfather? How can family loyalties sometimes create more problems than they solve?

"Let go of him!" I shouted.

The man ignored me. His hands were around Grandfather's throat. Grandfather weakly hit back at the man, but it had no effect. The man struck Grandfather's head against the floor. Grandfather's eyelids fluttered, then closed.

"Nooo!" I screamed. I swung the sword and gashed the thief's should. He howled and rolled to the side, grasping at the bloody wound.

"You cut me," he said in disbelief. "The wench cut me with the sword."

"Get out of my house, before I cut out your heart." I raised the sword and ran at him. (19.72-19.76)

Talk about a complete and utter role reversal: now it's Matilda who's playing the part of the soldier. She has Grandfather's old sword out and is ready to kill the intruders to save him. How is this moment symbolic of how Matilda's role in the family is changing? Is she now becoming their protector?

Now what? I couldn't care for Nell; I could barely care for myself. And her mother needed burying, though I didn't relish another trip back to the public square. I had to find someone to care for her. (21.6)

Though she's initially reluctant, Matilda ends up playing the part of mother to the orphan Nell. Matilda is not legally obligated to care for the child, of course; yet, she does anyhow. Why does Matilda choose to care for Nell and make her a part of the family? Do you think you would you have done the same?

There was no more talk of returning me to the coffeehouse or finding a different home for Nell. Joseph and Eliza agreed that I couldn't live alone, not with the deserted streets as dangerous as the crowded sickrooms. We didn't talk about what would happen after the fever. Eliza promised we would find my mother or learn her fate as soon as the epidemic was over. We didn't talk about Nell, we just loved her. (23.81)

Eliza and Joseph have welcomed both Matilda and Nell into their home, forming an impromptu kind of family. How has the fever brought together people who normally wouldn't find themselves together?

It was Eliza's idea to have a small feast of thanksgiving with Joseph and the boys. I suggested Mother Smith, too. We didn't need to discuss Nathaniel. Of course he would come. (27.14)

As the novel draws to a close, we can see that Matilda's family has been greatly extended. Though not of blood relation, Eliza's brother Joseph, the twins, Mother Smith, Nathaniel Benson, and the orphan Nell are all now a part of Matilda's family. And they're all coming to Thanksgiving dinner! What is it that all of these people have in common? What is it that makes them a family?