11 July 2010

Fever 1793

Mattie Cook dreams of the day she can escape toiling in her family's Colonial Philadelphia coffeehouse for European luxury shops. Her daydreams must take a backseat to reality, however, when the worse yellow fever epidemic in memory strikes the city, causing widespread suffering and chaos. When her mother falls ill, Mattie and her grandfather flee the city to escape the pestilence, but when a cruel twist of fate sends them back to Philly, young Mattie learns far more about life than any jaunt to Europe would ever have taught her.

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.


  1. I am going to hazard a guess based on what I know of you and say that you would enjoy Twisted, the only Anderson book that I've read. It's about a troubled kid growing up in an unhappy family -- what's not to like? :D I thought Anderson did a great job of getting inside this kid's head and making you believe in his pain. Fever sounds more family friendly?

  2. Ah, thank you! I shall check that one out. (I am at work right now, so as long as it is on the shelf, I am good to go.)

    Yes, I do believe that this one is more family friendly. I saw that actually Fever, 1793 is recommended for middle schoolers over teens and I think that's probably why the protagonist is a bit less edgy. It definitely works better on that age level. Yesterday, I checked out Speak--which was Anderson's first novel--and was flipping through it last night. It definitely is more edgy and it looks really good. It also has an excerpt from another of her books--Wintergirls--that looks excellent, as well. Now I can add Twisted to my reading wish list!

    Did you see my review of Stressed-Out Girls on the Unblogged Chronicles last week? :D

  3. Yes I did see your review last week. :) I was talking to my daughter about it and she agreed that girls are more stressed out about school than boys. Now if I could only get her to read that book. Any suggestions?

    I seem to remember that what made Twisted a departure for Anderson is that it was her first male protagonist. You can correct me if I'm wrong . . .

    Do you know that there was another YA novel about the 1793 epidemic in Philadelphia a few years back? I know b/c I read that one. The author had an axe to grind with religion which bugged me. Anderson's book sounds better! :)

  4. Maybe if you check it out and leave it lying around the house, she'll get curious and read it. :D

    I believe you're right. I checked her website last night and she said that was quite a challenge for her. I know we have Twisted but couldn't find it. I am going to check again Friday. *will not be defeated by a missing book*

    Yes, I dislike books where the author tries to push his/her message off on the reader. (And with crazy Colonials, you can't do any better than Arthur Miller's The Crucible. :P) I never got that impression at all with this book. What was the title of the book you read?

  5. Darn it, Z, I've been googling trying to find this other book but Anderson's has taken over the internet. The protagonist was male and I seem to recall that he was interested in becoming a doctor (?). I know Benjamin Rush, the famous Phila. physician, appeared in the novel. That's about all I can remember at the moment. Not sure where else to look.

    Speaking of the 18th century did you hear that they've found a ship from that period buried in a New York City landfill this week? I thought that was pretty cool. Apparently the mud preserved the wood. Talk about stuck in traffic! :)

    I will try leaving the book out, thanks.

  6. Hmm . . . I'll see if I can find this book through EBSCO. I can't stand to have a title elude me! *sounds hunting horn*

    Oooh, no, I hadn't heard about that. Thanks for telling me! I shall definitely have to find some photos of that! :D

  7. I read this book when I was younger.

    It was at our Scholastic book fair or whatever. They would show previews of it and I swear it TERRIFIED me!!

    I found some white powder in my binder once and I thought it was going to kill me. No joke! I was 10 don't laugh too hard.

    I was too young at the time to really disect the character. It's funny I keep getting little bursts of memories from the book. Like when her love dropped flowers out of the window on her. Oh and I remember the bloodletting. That's gross.

  8. I can't laugh at you on that one, because I can get freaked out by books too! (Have you read The Great Mortality? It's a book about the bubonic plague. Oh my God! I felt like bugs were crawling on me for days afterwards.)

    Eww The bloodletting *was* gross. I thought this was a good book, but after reading Anderson's other books, I found them more impressive. I did really love the historical detail in this one, though.

  9. I have never read The Great Mortatlity but I am thinking of reading my first scary novel soon. I think it will actually be The Historian. For real scary, not 10 year old scary.

    Hmm...I might have to check out Anderson's other books. I've heard that Speak (I think that is what it is called) is really good. Have you read that one?

  10. I have not read The Historian, but it is definitely on my to be read list! You'll have to tell me about it after you read it. :)

    Some good horror novels I have read in the past few months are the original Dracula by Bram Stoker--it isn't high art, but it has some genuinely scary moments; Daphne Du Maurier's The Birds--it is very unnerving!; and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson--great ghost story. I like horror fiction, but I have not read as much as I want to!

    I read Speak right after this one and I thought it was superb. Very engaging character and a very unique YA novel. It can be hard to read just because the premise is sad and a bit disturbing, but it is ultimately uplifting. Great book. I highly recommend it. :)

  11. Okay if you recommend it, I will put it on my to-read list.

    I'll have to look into those books. I really want to read a scary novel. I never have.

    Is The Birds related to the Alfred Hitchcock movie?

  12. I used this book in a summer reading club back when I was teaching. It was a big hit. To help my kids understand yellow fever more, I had them act out the symptoms progressively.

    They loved that!