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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Fever 1793 The Worst Kind of Horror Story

(Image from Target)

"Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. The chambers of diseases were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation."

- Charles Brockden Brown (Arthur Mervyn; or Memoirs of the Year 1793; quoted on Page 105)

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is the worst kind of horror story - the kind that really happened and could, in all likelihood, happen again. As its blunt title suggests, the novel concerns an outbreak of yellow fever that swept through Philadelphia in the summer and Fall of 1793. The virus spread rapidly, killing indiscriminately and prompting hundreds to flee the city. Before long, America's then-capitol became a veritable ghost town with terrified citizens barricaded in their homes, thieves pillaging abandoned residences, and corpses lying forgotten in the streets. With armed sentries guarding neighboring towns, sick Philadelphians were left on their own to die of fever or starvation ... whichever came first.

When Fever 1793 opens, however, none of this has happened yet. It's mid-August and 14-year-old Matilda Cook's only concern is escaping chores and her mother's sharp tongue. She does neither with success; in fact, since Polly the serving girl hasn't shown up, Mattie's stuck helping out in her family's coffeehouse. Her grumbling halts, however, when she learns Polly's fate: the girl is dead of the fever. As devastated as the family is by the girl's passing, they know her death is nothing unusual - fever descends on the city every summer.

Soon, however, the church bells are marking deaths daily. A fear as oppressive as the August heat settles over the city. As dozens fall ill, families escape to the countryside; farmers refuse to bring their wares to market; businesses close; and frightened citizens lock themselves inside their homes. When fever hits the Cook Family, Mattie's finally forced to leave the city, but it's not long before she discovers the ugly truth: the citizens of Philadelphia are on their own. It's up to Mattie to fight the fever that threatens to destroy everything she loves. With little food, money or protection to be had, there's only one thing on which she can rely - herself.

Anderson paints a devastated Philadelphia in painfully vivid detail. Through Mattie, we feel the fear, the paranoia, the helplessness of a people left to suffer and die on their own. Through her, we see the ugly side of desperation, but also the beauty. While she struggles against knife-wielding thieves, heartless neighbors and cutting betrayal, Mattie also finds strength and hope in the most unlikely of places. With well-drawn characters (some of whom really lived), a gripping plot, and masterful storytelling, Fever 1793 grabs the reader and doesn't let go. It's as mesmerizing as the fever itself - and just as powerful.

Grade: A


  1. I loved this book. It's well-written and, as you said, definitely the worst kind of horror story because it has happened and could happen, again (although not yellow fever). We occasionally come across graveyards with victims of yellow fever, down here. I was surprised that Philadelphia had a yellow fever outbreak. It's so far north!

  2. You're right - I should have pointed out that yellow fever has been eradicated in the U.S. It still kills thousands of people every year in Africa and South America, according to Anderson.

  3. I loved the sense of place that this author portrayed. You felt like you were right there with the characters - maybe that's what made it all the more scary to me! You're great at reviewing these books! Keep it up!

  4. I just recently bought Speak and am waiting to tear into it! Fever sounds just as intense!

  5. I've had my eye on this one. Thanks for the review.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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