Fever 1793

Laurie Halse Anderson


In Fever 1793 Matilda Cook, otherwise known as Mattie, is the protagonist. She works with her parents and two hired servants, Polly and Eliza, to run a coffeehouse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the time, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the capital of the United States. Almost immediately in the book, Yellow Fever strikes. This was a serious illness because it was often fatal, and a vaccine for it wasn't invented until 137 years after the epidemic. (Source: Appendix)

The photo at left is from http://www.amazon.com/

Character Analysis


In the beginning of the book, Mattie always wants to sleep, creating the impression that she is lazy. In fact, the opening scene of the book highlights this. Her Mother screams at her and complains that "I can't tell who is lazier, Polly or you." She also says "When I was a girl, we were up before the sun..." (Anderson 2) This evidence shows that her Mother has a strong work ethic, and Mattie does not.

Mattie always wants to get out of working. One way she does this is to try and slip out unnoticed. For example, she says "My favorite place was the waterfront...I promised myself a secret visit to the docks later, as soon as Polly arrived to distract Mother." (Anderson 4) She also tries to leave the coffeehouse by asking to run errands, such as going to look for her Grandfather and Polly, and later she asks to buy cider. These examples show that she has a poor work ethic and will do anything she can to avoid work.

She doesn't want to help others and she only thinks of herself. "If I was going to work as hard as a mule, it might as well be for my own benefit." (Anderson 12) She doesn't think helping others is beneficial to her, so she tries not to do it.

Once the Yellow Fever epidemic starts, Mattie's personality changes for the better. Mattie's Mother catches the fever, so Mattie and her Grandfather flee the town. Mattie and her Grandfather are prohibited from entering the next town because he is sick, so Mattie is left to care for him by herself. She finds a river and brings her Grandfather some water from it. She picks some raspberries for them to eat, as well. She also crafts a makeshift fishing net out of her petticoat to catch a fish. Because her Grandfather is so sick, he is no help in this situation. As a result, Mattie has to find the river and figure out how to catch the fish herself. Doing all this requires intelligence and perseverance.

At another point, Mattie searches for Eliza because she needs her help. Along the way, she finds a little girl named Nell. Apparently, Nell's Mother died from the fever. Mattie decides to take care of her and continues the search for Eliza. Mattie means well when she takes responsibility for Nell, but it is surprising that she did it because Mattie is having enough trouble taking care of herself. She decides to take Nell with her because she wants support and company as she searches for Eliza. Luckily, their search is relatively short.

Now, Mattie is more mature, and she is willing to work hard and help others. Mattie decides that the orphan house is not an optimal place for Nell to be, so she continues to take care of her. Mattie works with Eliza helping others who have the fever. At one point, Eliza offers for Mattie to go home, but she refuses. After that, Eliza actually says "Never knew you to look for extra work. Come along then." (Anderson 196)

When Eliza says that she is going to have the children they are taking care of bled, Mattie disagrees. She says that Dr. Rush, who recommends bleeding, is an American doctor who has seen only two or three epidemics in his life. The French doctors treat Yellow Fever almost every year, and they do not recommend bleeding. Eliza counters that Joseph went through the bleeding treatment and will survive for years. Then, Mattie says "If Joseph is alive, it is in spite of the bleeding, not because of it." (Anderson 205) This demonstrates Mattie's intelligence and her ability to analyze situations well.

At the very end of the book, Mattie seems much more mature than she was at the beginning of the book. It takes a lot of maturity to reopen the coffeehouse with just her and Eliza. She also has developed a strong work ethic. Running the coffeehouse takes a lot of work, something she wouldn't have done when the book started. Most importantly, she develops empathy for others. She helps many people she is not related to, such as the sick kids, and she goes from house to house giving people provisions.

The photo above is of Philadelphia in 1799. It is from http://www.phillyhistory.org/

Mattie's Physical Appearance

Mattie has long, straight hair and light skin. She is 16 years old. Throughout the book, Mattie wears many different types of clothing. In the beginning of the book, Mattie wears a white shift but immediately changes into a blue linen skirt. Later in the story, when she is invited to a fancy tea, she wears a fancy, short gown. She finds this gown to be extremely uncomfortable because it is too small. This is because they don't normally get invited to fancy occasions. As they leave the city, Mattie is wearing an apron and a petticoat. Later, she takes off the petticoat when her Grandfather becomes sick and uses it to catch fish.

The photo at left of the White Shift Nightgown is from http://www.1860-1960.com/.

About Yellow Fever

Watch a video about the actual Yellow Fever epidemic

Fever: 1793 - Philadelphia: The Great Experiment
Documentary on the actual Yellow Fever Epidemic from 1793; aired on "6 ABC". Link to shortened video (section about Bush Hill, a place mentioned in the book) for presentation. (17:58-20:07)

Yellow Fever Prevention and Symptoms

There are two ways to prevent Yellow Fever. First, avoid mosquito bites because Yellow Fever is often transmitted by mosquitoes. Second, if it is recommended, get a Yellow Fever vaccine. (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention) Yellow Fever has three different phases. The symptoms of the first phase include chills, fevers, and flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, headaches, and vomiting. The second phase is a 48-hour period of remission. The third phase is the worst, and only affects about 15% of the patients. The symptoms of the third phase include jaundice, hepatitis, internal bleeding, vomiting blood, shock and multisystem organ failure leading to death. (Source: WebMD)

The photo, of a mosquito that commonly transmits Yellow Fever, is from: https://www.vectorbase.org/

Read a Synopsis of the Yellow Fever Epidemic

Provided by the History Channel Website

View a Map of Yellow Fever Outbreaks from 1793-1905

Interactive map provided by PBS/WGBH


In this story, Mattie faces many different conflicts. The main conflict is the Yellow Fever epidemic and how it affects Mattie and the other characters in the book. The first thing Mattie faces is Polly's death from the fever early on in the book. When Mattie hears the news, she cannot believe it. Polly was one of the assistants at the coffeehouse. Mattie remembers her as a friend, before she started working at the coffeehouse. She even played with her years ago.

Another conflict Mattie faces throughout the book is that others always think of her as "little". Because Mattie first started working at the coffeehouse when she was young, customers and coworkers are not bothering to change their first impressions of Mattie. This is annoying to her because they don't see her as the capable person she is.

More conflicts occur later in the story when Mattie and her Grandfather flee the town after the fever strikes her Mother. Mattie really wants to stay and help her Mother, but her Mother insists that Mattie leave so she won't get sick. Mattie is afraid that her Mother will die.

As Mattie and her Grandfather enter an adjoining town on a farmer's wagon, officials stop and inspect them for the fever. The inspection finds that Mattie's Grandfather has Yellow Fever. Mattie and her Grandfather are not allowed to enter the town, so the farmer goes on without them and takes all their belongings. Mattie is very sad to find out that her Grandfather has the fever and she says "I bit the inside of my cheek to force back the tears." (Anderson 84) She does not want her Grandfather to see how upset she is.

After that, she faces an even bigger conflict: she catches the fever herself. Mattie becomes delirious before she passes out from the fever. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a facility called "Bush Hill". Because the facility used to be full of criminals and "one step away from Hell" (Anderson 101), Mattie wants to leave as soon as she realizes where she is. What she doesn't know is that, the previous week, the facility had been turned into a treatment facility. Once she finds this out she stays, and she recovers from the fever over the next several weeks. However, when it comes time for her to be discharged, the hospital wants to release her to an orphan house. Her Grandfather fights the hospital and gets Mattie released to him.

Their troubles don't end there. Once Mattie and her Grandfather return to the coffeehouse, they find out that it has been robbed. Not only did they lose a lot of their food, but it is hard to find more food since all of the farmers have already left the town. Also, the prices on any available food are extremely high. After that, Mattie and her Grandfather go to bed. Because Mattie is hot, she opens a window. Several hours later, thieves break into the coffeehouse again! This time, Mattie and her Grandfather are home. Mattie wakes up and screams. This wakes her Grandfather who comes down and shoots the thieves with a rifle. After that, there is a quick fight in which everyone gives it their all. The thief is shocked when Mattie is able to hurt him really badly. Unfortunately, Mattie's Grandfather, who is still weak from the illness, is weakened further by the fight. After Mattie finishes chasing the thieves, she returns to her Grandfather who says his last words and dies. Mattie is really sad to lose her Grandfather. At the time, the book says "I shrieked to the heavens and pounded the floor with rage. Nonono! Don't take him! Nonono!" (Anderson 147).

After her Grandfather dies, Mattie searches for Eliza. While doing this, she finds an orphan named Nell and takes Nell with her. Shortly after, they find Eliza. The next day, Mattie goes with Eliza to help her give provisions to fever victims. When Mattie and Eliza return to Eliza's home, they find out that Robert and William (twin boys) and Nell have the fever, so they take them to the coffeehouse. Because the sick kids are uncomfortably hot, and there are many bugs around, Eliza creates a large fan that works well, but is so big it can only be used for a few minutes at a time.

Caring for the children is a conflict because Mattie has to work for days and weeks on end. The author implies that, while she helps the sick kids, she barely eats or sleeps. These actions are very selfless, especially compared to the beginning of the book, when Mattie barely wants get out of bed.

Near the end of the book, Mattie is attempting to get some water from a well, but is so tired she falls asleep. When she wakes up, she sees that frost has arrived. Frost kills Yellow Fever! Mattie is very excited and shouts "It's frost! The first frost! The end of the fever" and "We made it!" (Anderson 210) After this, the tension in the plot loosens up considerably, and things return to normal very quickly.

The photo above is of a hospital filled with people infected by Yellow Fever. It is from http://shirley-mclain.net/



One of the themes of this book is that Mattie grows as a human being. She not only matures, but she changes. For example, in the beginning of the book, she barely wants to get out of bed. However, later in the book, she wants to run the coffeehouse, which is a lot of work. This indicates that she has learned hard work and dedication. Also, barely wanting to get out of bed in the beginning of the book can indicate selfishness. However, towards the end of the book, Mattie helps distribute important provisions to people she doesn't even know! She also helps nurse some random fever victims back to health. She becomes more empathetic as the book goes on. For example, she is sad when her Mother catches the fever and does all she can to try and help her. This also shows that she is less self-centered, and now she is compassionate and puts other's needs before her own.

The photo above is of President George Washington's house in the 1790's. It is from: http://www.mrgrayhistory.com/


Instead of using a purely nonfiction work to tell of this epidemic, in which more than one in every ten people died (Source: Philadelphia the Great Experiment), the author creates a fictional character near the age of her target audience to get her readers invested in the character and her family. This makes the events feel more real, and the focus on the one character's point of view is much more engaging than the overview a purely nonfiction work would provide. Characterization also moves the plot forward because the epidemic seems more menacing when it is characterized as a "beast" ravaging the entire city. Throughout the story, all of the characters grow and evolve. For example, in the beginning of the story, Mattie had big dreams, but did not seem to be driven to actually work to make them happen. By the end of the story, Mattie has developed a work ethic and actually accomplishes her dream to run the coffeehouse. Another example of all the characters growing and evolving is the Mother. Although she only makes appearances at the beginning and end of the story, she also shows major changes. For example, at the beginning of the story, she seems high-strung and works the hardest. At the end of the book, she is considerably more relaxed.

The photo above is of Christ Church in 1799, a place that was mentioned in the book. It is from http://teachingamericanhistory.org/


For the most part, I praise this book. I feel that the author did a great job of getting her readers invested in the main character. She gets the readers to really care about Mattie and the other characters and what happens to them.

Despite the above praise, I still have a few critiques. After the first few people around Mattie become ill, it starts to feel repetitive. Luckily, the author is able to do this without losing too much of the reader's interest by keeping the other parts of the plot interesting. For example, there were Matilda's dreams about the coffeehouse, the coffeehouse getting robbed multiple times, Mattie helping Eliza bring provisions around to other people, and other events.

My other critique is that the plot seems to end abruptly, and it wasn't as dramatic as I was expecting it to be. The frost occurs suddenly, and this immediately ends the Yellow Fever epidemic.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to someone else.

The photo above is of Congress Hall, where Congress met from 1790-1800. It is from http://www.senate.gov/