Fever 1793 Summary

Laurie Halse Anderson

Fever 1793

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Fever 1793 Summary

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Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is a 2000 young adult historical fiction novel. The novel opens in the summer of 1793 in Philadelphia, centering on a fourteen year-old-girl named Matilda Cook, known commonly at Mattie.

Mattie is awakened by her widowed mother, Lucille Cook, to start the day helping around the coffee shop they run with Mattie’s grandfather, Eliza, a free black woman, and their servant girl Polly. This morning, however, Polly is seemingly late, though they shortly discover that in fact she died the night before from a sudden illness. This adds to the rumors of a fever going around the city, and worries Mrs. Cook, who refuses to let Mattie pay her respects to Polly’s family, for fear of her contracting the mysterious disease. As the day continues, gossip continues to swirl, with one customer, a doctor, claiming the disease is yellow fever.

Time passes, and people continue to die. The church bells keep ringing, announcing deaths. Despite the danger, Mattie is sent to the market for supplies as her mother is exhausted. There, she runs into Nathaniel Benson, a painter’s apprentice for whom Mattie is starting to develop romantic feelings. He invites her to go fishing, but she refuses, knowing she is needed at home. Once home, her grandfather chastises her for the unseemly act of speaking to a young man unsupervised.

The days wear on, and Mattie’s mother becomes quite ill herself. A doctor confirms that it is indeed yellow fever, and encourages Mattie and her grandfather to leave town to escape the epidemic. While on their way to the farm of a family friend, they are stopped and inspected by a doctor to ensure that the fever does not spread. Unfortunately, Mattie’s grandfather breaks into a coughing fit and they are abandoned in the middle of the country. As Mattie attempts to care for her sick grandfather, she starts to feel ill herself and blacks out.

When she awakes, she finds herself in Bush Hill hospital, where she and her grandfather are able to rest and recover. A couple of weeks later, they are well enough to return to Philadelphia. Upon returning to the coffee shop, they see that it has been ransacked: furniture is broken and stocks of food are missing. They do not see any trace of Mattie’s mother or Eliza, and Mattie is forced to scavenge for food in the vegetable garden.

That night, two men breaking into the coffee shop rattle Mattie awake. They grab some of the remaining possessions, and Mattie rushes out to try and stop them and get help, but she is captured. Her grandfather awakens and attempts to shoot the men, but he misses. They flee, though the struggle has claimed his life.

Mattie buries her grandfather the next day and then sets out on the town to find signs of her mother. She comes across a girl, Nell, recently orphaned, and takes her into her care. She also runs across Eliza, and is relieved to see a familiar face.

Mattie discovers that Eliza is living with her brother Joseph, his twin boys, and Mother Smith, who is helping raise the children. Mattie helps with the children and does work with the Free African Society, caring for the sick. However, soon the twins and Nell fall ill. Mattie wants to take them to the Bush Hill hospital, but Eliza dismisses the idea. Mattie, trying to think of a cool place to escape the heat, finally realizes that the coffee shop would make a good treatment center.

Situated back at the shop, Eliza and Mattie spend every waking hour caring for the children. Days blend together, but eventually the first frost comes and the children’s fever breaks. Mattie yet again steps out into the city and visits the market to replenish supplies. She runs into Nathaniel, who continues to visit her as the days pass and the city begins to come back to life.

Mattie asks Eliza to be her business partner as she plans to re-open the coffee shop. A reluctant Eliza eventually agrees, and they have a big Thanksgiving meal with everyone, including Nathaniel.

The coffee shop is reopened, and business is good. Nathaniel’s paintings hang on the walls, and the city is revitalized. Even President Washington has returned, riding down High Street on a white horse. Finally, a carriage arrives at the door and Mattie’s mother is inside, safe and sound. They recall their travails, Mattie’s mother having attempted unsuccessfully to find Mattie in the country before falling ever more sick.

As the book closes, Mattie’s typical morning is in strong contrast to the opening of the book. She is now the first to rise, cooking for everyone else and preparing the shop for the day. She and the city have aged greatly over the past few months, gripped by the epidemic and how fear and disease brought people together and tore families apart.

A strong work of historical fiction, Fever 1793 gives insight on how an epidemic in early America brought chaos and strength to citizens of the fledgling country.