Fourteen-year-old Mathilda Cook feels that her demanding mother is the biggest concern in her life. Mathilda's mother thinks that she is lazy and needs to learn the virtues of hard work while serving at the family business, the Cook Coffeehouse, a cafe and restaurant started by Mathilda's father. Mathilda's father died in a freak accident soon after the coffeehouse opened, and Mathilda and her mother have been working hard ever since to make a living. They also have to support Mathilda's grandfather, an old man who fought in the war for independence and now sits around in the coffeehouse keeping the conversations lively.
Mathilda's best friend is their African American cook Eliza, a strong young woman who earned her freedom and works at the Cook Coffeehouse. Her excellent cooking keeps the coffeehouse running and her kind words and advice help patch together the shaky relations between Mathilda and her mother.
Mathilda's small world is turned on end, though, when reports of a strange sickness begin to circulate. It appears that people are beginning to come down with a strange fever that kills with surprising rapidity. The doctors call it “Yellow Fever” but they have no dependable cure and they have no idea what causes it.
Some people speculate that it comes from the foul smell of the nearby river, and specifically a dockside pile of rotting coffee beans that has released its “deadly miasma.” Other say that the fever was brought to Philadelphia by a group of immigrants.
However, the fever got started, though, it spreads with great speed. At first it seems that the epidemic will be good for Mathilda and her family because it motivates most Philadelphia residents to stay away from the downtown waterfront district and instead frequent the Cook Coffeehouse, which is on higher ground. Eventually, though, the coffeehouse income falls off as people begin to flee Philadelphia for safer territories.
Then comes the day when Mathilda discovers her own mother sick with the yellow fever. Her mother commands Mathilda to leave so that she will not get the fever herself, and soon Mathilda finds herself on her way to the country with her grandfather. However, the surrounding towns are afraid to let people enter because they don't want anyone to bring the plague with them, so Mathilda ends up alone in the countryside trying to take care of her old grandfather.
When Mathilda herself comes down with the yellow fever someone finds her and her grandfather and takes them to Bush Hill, a special hospital facility where French doctors are taking care of yellow fever patients. Though many people still die despite the care of the doctors, Mathilda survives.
Finally released from the hospital Mathilda must return to Philadelphia to try to find her mother again. Since she has already had the yellow fever she is now immune and she becomes a nurse. Although Mathilda is able to help other patients sick with the yellow fever she still can not find her mother. Along the way, though, Mathilda learns to appreciate work and she becomes a better, stronger person because of the experience.
I appreciated “Yellow Fever 1793” for its pleasant tone and fascinating historical facts. Laurie Halse Anderson did an excellent job in creating the main character Mathilda. It is interesting to watch Mathilda develop as the storyline progresses. For readers who like historical fiction I must note that the historical details in “Yellow Fever 1793” are all set out in a brilliant appendix that summarizes many aspects of the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic.
I highly recommend that young readers learn about the yellow fever by reading “Yellow Fever 1793.”
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