Published by Aladdin on September 1, 2000
Genres: Middle Grade, Historial Fiction, Survival
It’s late summer 1793, and the streets of Philadelphia are abuzz with mosquitoes and rumors of fever. Down near the docks, many have taken ill, and the fatalities are mounting. Now they include Polly, the serving girl at the Cook Coffeehouse. But fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook doesn’t get a moment to mourn the passing of her childhood playmate. New customers have overrun her family’s coffee shop, located far from the mosquito-infested river, and Mattie’s concerns of fever are all but overshadowed by dreams of growing her family’s small business into a thriving enterprise. But when the fever begins to strike closer to home, Mattie’s struggle to build a new life must give way to a new fight-the fight to stay alive.
Growing up I was a regular at my local library, and one book that I specifically remember checking out on more than one occasion is Fever 1793. It wasn’t until recent years that I discovered it is written by the same author of the acclaimed young adult contemporary Speak – a book I didn’t love despite the hype surrounding it. I’ve been wanting to reread Fever 1793 ever since that discovery, and when I found a used copy at the Strand for $1 I just had to pick it up.
Fever 1793 is the story of young Mattie Cook, a teenager growing up in Philadelphia and helping her widowed mother run a coffeehouse. The story opens with one of Mattie’s childhood friends suddenly dying from the yellow fever, which erupts into a full epidemic throughout her city. Readers follow Mattie as she attempts to escape the disease by leaving Philadelphia for the countryside with her beloved grandfather. Of course, things do not go as planned.
I am very impressed with how deep and emotional Fever 1793 is, especially for a middle grade novel. I grew to love each and every character, and found myself reaching for the tissues on more than one occasion. Mattie is an excellent first-person narrator, and while some of the dialogue in the book can be considered corny by today’s standards, the language stays true to the time period.
In the same way, it is clear the author did substantial research on yellow fever in order to write a historical fiction novel quite focused on the history. I really liked how each chapter opened with a quotation from primary source material, whether it be a book from the 18th century or a letter from a politician of the time. It added a lot of credibility to the story, and also made the fictional characters seem more real. I also thought it was smart that the novel concluded with a few pages describing the history of the yellow fever. It’s always nice to know precisely what parts of historical fiction are true to history versus created by the author.
All in all, I have nothing but praise for Fever 1793. While my opinion may be biased due to me loving this book as a child, I’m so happy I still enjoyed it as an adult. If you’re looking for a great historical fiction novel, I highly recommend this one. Whether you’re at the middle grade reading level or not, Fever 1793 is bound to be a great read for you.