Laurie Halse Anderson's Fever, 1793 is a pleasant read that I enjoyed and recommend for history buffs and those who like coming of age tales, though it had some minor flaws. Anderson writes Mattie's first person narration with a natural tone that does not come off as too contemporary or sophisticated. I have always found disease tales fascinating. (I am morbid--I will not deny that.) The plot has the right touch of suspense generated not by humans so much as by the dreaded fever, which seems inescapable. The character's seemingly never-ending wait for frost to come adds a nice touch of the proverbial ticking time bomb. The novel's greatest strength is the historical accuracy. Anderson--who lives in Philadelphia--meticulously researched the real life yellow fever epidemic of 1793 that claimed the lives of 10% of the population and caused thousands more to evacuate the City of Brotherly Love. The period details are perfect without bogging the narration down and the scenes that depict the the city's descent into virtual anarchy are compelling.
If the historical detail is the novel's biggest strength, the tale's biggest weakness is Mattie herself. Oh, don't get me wrong: She's a likable enough character. The problem is she's just too . . . predictable. Other than the fever, her problems are all fairly standard--young love, a loving but frustrating relationship with her mother. I have seen a thousand YA protagonists like Mattie--not really a bad kid but slightly disillusioned and annoyed with her mother, just in need of the right crisis to set her squarely on her path to adulthood. I love a good coming-of-age story and the best ones have complex characters that you may on occasion want to kill, but they are complex and unique and, as consequence, all too human. I'm thinking of Gene in A Separate Peace, Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Anne of Green Gables, just to name a few. Mattie's not a bad character--and she's not totally bland and she has her charm--but she's nothing that you haven't seen before in YA fiction. And that is what makes this book, which is a fine read, a good book but not a truly great book, in my opinion.
Though I found Mattie a bit too two-dimensional for my taste, she is not a distasteful main character and her tale of fever, courage, and survival is a gripping read that will appeal to fans of historical fiction and coming-of-age tales. I have long wanted to read a Laurie Halse Anderson book. She's considered a premier voice in YA fiction, and I definitely want to read more of her work. She's a talented writer who is adept at spinning a fine tale and maintaining an impressive historical authenticity at the same time. I have read that her contemporary YA fiction is far more edgy and intense than this novel, so I look forward to sampling more of her work.
Next Week: Um, we'll see.
This Week in Literary History:
10 July 1931: Canadian short story writer Alice Munro is born. Famous for her masterfully crafted literary short stories, Munro is considered one of the best living writers. I read her delightful short story "Walker Brother Cowboy" in World Lit II last semester, and I can't wait to read more of her work.