Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000)
An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy (2003)
Okay. Jig’s up. Who knew about this? Because I certainly didn’t.
If you are like me and were completely unaware of the horrifying Yellow Fever epidemic that swept Philadelphia a little bit after the Revolutionary War, you should probably go ahead and grab one of these YA books and enlighten yourself.
This semester I’m taking Information Books & Resources for Youth and in a couple weeks we are discussing the unique relationship historical fiction can have with your more standard-fare non-fiction. This coupling was one of the pairs we will be reviewing. And while I’m pretty familiar with the idea of using historical fiction to bridge kids to non-fiction (or the other way around), I have never seen a pair of books that do this so seamlessly.
As you may know, I have a habit of reading lots of books simultaneously. I have my blow-drying book, my waiting-for-the-bus book, by bedtime book, and sometimes another one thrown in there for good measure. So, needless to say, I was reading both these books at the same time. And I found myself forgetting which one had already told me one thing or another. I would come across a character in Fever that I forgot I hadn’t met in the context of Mattie’s story yet, just in the non-fiction version I read while in the kitchen. (It got a bit confusing, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this concurrent reading approach for these two.)
The good thing this proved to me, however, is how extremely detailed and impressive the research was that went into both books. Anderson spins an exciting tale of teen Mattie as she and her family and friends (and the rest of the city) contract and fight the disease. As I mentioned, interwoven throughout Mattie’s fictional story are plenty of historical characters and astonishingly accurate details. Meanwhile, Murphy has a knack for making death and disaster particularly engaging, as he pulls together primary documents and quotes from all the major players of this catastrophic event. (I’m serious, though. Catastrophe. In our country. That I had never heard of. Likely over 5000 people dead due to this 3-month-long epidemic. Did I miss that day of American History class in 8th grade? Sorry, Mr. Owen.)
So I don’t care if you prefer fiction or non-fiction or are a teenager or a retiree. Either of these books are extremely well-prepared to inform you about this bleak time in our history.
PS: ALSO — Did you know that Yellow Fever has no known cure and that any day now the mosquitoes could decide to spread it all over again and we would be totally unprepared because no American company manufactures the vaccine? OH GREAT.2 stars (Fever) / 1.5 stars (American Plague) (This is a total personal preference of fiction over non-fiction. I have a deep-seated prejudice that books like Murphy’s are beginning to dislodge. The quality of Murphy’s book is definitely high.)