It's late summer 1793, and the streets of Philadelphia are abuzz with mosquitoes and rumors of fever. Down near the docks, many have taken ill, and the fatalities are mounting. Now they include Polly, the serving girl at the Cook Coffeehouse. But fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook doesn't get a moment to mourn the passing of her childhood playmate. New customers have overrun her family's coffee shop, located far from the mosquito-infested river, and Mattie's concerns of fever are all but overshadowed by dreams of growing her family's small business into a thriving enterprise. But when the fever begins to strike closer to home, Mattie's struggle to build a new life must give way to a new fight—the fight to stay alive.
In 1793, Philadelphia, PA was the largest city in the established colonies. The city streets, called alleys at the time, were laid out in a grid pattern as many modern cities are laid out today. Located on the Delaware River made it an ideal spot for accessibility and trade. Markets, banks, coffeehouses, a university and the State House made it a desirable, modern city of its' time.
The central location was one of the reasons the Constitutional Convention was called to order in Philadelphia during a very hot summer six years earlier.
Despite its “modernism” imagine dirt roads, outhouses, animal droppings in the streets, and trash that was put out at night for rats to scamper through as disposal. Therefore, your daily life consisted of swapping away flies and mosquitos' not to mention the smells around. Personal hygiene did not consist of baths or showers and doctors had opinions, perhaps a few remedies, but no modern medicines at hand. Bleeding was the favored method of some of the doctors around to get rid of the sickness.
He’s the best physician that knows the worthlessness of most Medicines. –Benjamin Franklin
-Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1733
Get to know Mattie and her family in this historical young adult fiction novel. Her mother and grandfather run a wonderful, successful respectable coffeehouse on a busy corner in Philadelphia among the hustle and bustle. Only 2 blocks away from President Washington’s house. Along with servants they work from sunrise to sundown, serve homemade delicious dishes to loyal guests and pass through travelers. Spirits were not served at this coffeehouse, but there was always time for a good card game.
Mattie is an obedient hard working and resilient girl. She runs errands at market and dislikes fancy dress up tea parties. One day, Polly, their servant girl does not show up for work. Stricken sick with a fever that people first called the “grippe”. In the next few days things change very quickly for this family and other Philadelphia residents, as it is thought that a ship docked at the harbour brought mosquitos along that infected people with Yellow Fever.
"The patient is to be placed in a large empty tub, and two buckets full of water, of the temperature 75 or 80 degrees
Fahrenheit’s thermometer, ….are to be thrown on him."
-Dr. Adam Kuhn, Philadelphia, 1793
As this story unfolds you will find out what happens to this family and how this young girl with some help struggles, persists through and helps others in need in this tragic time.
Pestilence: Written During the Prevalence of a Yellow Fever, 1973
Hot, dry winds forever blowing,
Dead men to the grave-yards going;
Oh! What plagues-there is no knowing!
This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, story of a real event in our history. Yellow Fever was not reserved for the poor or unfortunate. It did not stop for class, race gender, the wealthy or the leaders of this young nation. Many families evacuated into the country and were not even accepted into some towns as guards told them to turn around if they had been in contact with the fever. Supply and demand of needed items drove prices sky high. The people that remained suffered in their homes, hallucinating and starving.
The haunting toll of the church bells, the mass graves and the desperation of the people, our people, was heart wrenching to read. The author did a fantastic job interweaving fictional characters with this real time event.
In the Appendix of the book you will find interesting historical information that relates to the writing of the book. There are many things that I did not know prior to reading this. I love that about Fever 1793. The author took a period of history and held it under a lens to examine it, and then magnified it to this event for the reader to enjoy. I would have not found out about the Free African Society, or famous people touched by the fever, or the battle of the doctors in this time period. This is an outstanding piece of historical literature. I highly recommend this book to any middle grade student and up, studying American History in school.