When a deadly yellow fever rips through the U.S. capital of Philadelphia in 1793, the lives of the 40,000 residents come to a grinding halt. For one girl, 14-year-old Matilda Cook, the journey through the three-month epidemic is both empowering and tragic.
Matilda lives with her mother, Lucille, and paternal grandfather, Grandpa William, over their popular family-owned coffeehouse. Business is good, with mostly politicians, gentlemen, and businessmen dropping by for a bite to eat and the latest gossip. So when one of their serving girls is late for work, Lucille is livid to be left short-handed. She forces Matilda to pick up the slack, something Matilda’s had to do more of since getting older.
Matilda feels more like a servant than a daughter and can’t wait to get away from her mother’s strict discipline. But all of Matilda’s plans of escape vanish when she learns the serving girl died the night before from a strange fever.
Although the number of people dying from fever continues to grow, many in the city believe it’s just a normal autumnal illness and no big deal. But over the next few weeks, as proof of yellow fever becomes impossible to ignore, nearly half the citizens flee the city for the country. Businesses shut down, food markets close, and yellow ribbons are tied to doors and windows to signify the sick.
Lucille was one of the first to worry about the fever and wanted to send Matilda away, but both Grandpa and Matilda didn’t listen. However, they wish they had when they come home to find Lucille sick with the fever. Grandpa agrees to take Matilda to a family friend’s farm in the country to keep her safe. Matilda says goodbye to her ailing mother and leaves her in the care of their black cook, Eliza. She hopes she will get to see her mother again.
Along the road to the farm, Matilda and Grandpa are kicked off the carriage they hired because Grandpa coughs, and a doctor checking people passing through town for the fever declares Grandpa too sick.. Matilda and Grandpa are left in the middle of nowhere with no supplies. Grandpa falls ill, and Matilda tries to protect him from the scorching heat....
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Fourteen-year-old Matilda Cook and her mother, Lucille, shared a cramped bedroom in an apartment above their coffeehouse in Philadelphia. There were only two beds, a wash station, and a large wooden trunk. Across the hall lived Grandpa William, Matilda’s paternal grandfather.
It was a hot day in August, another in a series of long, hot days, and Matilda was dreading it. She wanted to slip down to the docks later, where she hoped to see Nathanial Benson, a young man who understood her desire to break free from the ties that bound her. Those ties belonged to her mother.
Matilda’s mother was the daughter of wealthy parents. She’d been a good child. She never complained, always did what she was told, and never spoke unless spoken to—the way she believed children should be. Despite her status, she was well-versed in working-class trades, like quilting, sewing, and spinning wool. Matilda was the antithesis of those qualities.
But the docks would have to wait. Their serving girl, Polly, was late, which meant Matilda had to help her mother open the coffeehouse. Matilda was annoyed. She assumed Polly was late because she was flirting with Matthew, the blacksmith’s son. This wasn’t...
Within a week’s time, 64 more people had died. But no one knew whether it was from fever or something else. Rumors of the fever by the docks sent the community flooding toward the center of the city. The fear was a boon for the coffeehouse, and they were busier than ever.
Matilda continued to take over Polly’s duties, leaving her no time to mourn her dead friend. She was so tired each night that she once fell asleep in the bathroom. Lucille continued to keep Matilda close and restricted her contact with customers. But their supplies were dwindling, and someone had to go to market. Matilda jumped at the chance.
Lucille dismissed the idea immediately, but Grandpa reasoned with her. She was exhausted and needed the break, he said. Lucille had to admit she felt unseasonably warm and tired. She finally agreed to let Matilda go as long as she came straight home and didn’t go past the lower-numbered streets by the river. This news was music to Matilda’s ears. She was tired of being cooped up in the house. Lucille had even started talking about sending Matilda to live with family friends, the Ludingtons, in the country. The only thing Matilda knew about the Ludingtons was...
The affluent townspeople point the finger at refugees for starting the fever. Yet, no evidence supports this theory.
Why do you think the society men and Mrs. Ogilvie were so quick to blame the wharf residents for the fever?
Matilda’s life was about to change in ways she never could have imagined. Grandpa checked Lucille’s pulse. She was alive but unconscious. He and Matilda carried her inside and up to the bedroom. Eliza screamed at the sight of Mrs. Cook unwell.
Grandpa assured the ladies that Lucille had merely passed out from the heat and exhaustion. A good rest should do the trick, but Matilda wasn’t so sure. Lucille opened her eyes briefly. Matilda waited for her to jump up and start ordering everyone around, but she didn’t. Instead, she told Matilda to take care of things downstairs while she rested. Her body shook with chills.
The day was a disaster. Matilda spilled coffee and tea everywhere, Eliza lost focus and burned food, and the patrons were tense and rowdy. When the day was finally over, only Grandpa and another man remained. His name was Mr. Rowley, and Grandpa told him about Lucille’s condition. Although he wasn’t a real doctor, Mr. Rowley did have some medical knowledge and offered to help. The real doctors were all down at the waterfront, where Eliza heard bodies were piling up like wood.
Matilda didn’t like Mr. Rowley. His hands and face were grimy, and he smelled like...
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Two days passed, and things for Matilda and Grandpa went from bad to worse. Grandpa was still alive, and his eyes weren’t yellow. But he was weak without food and water. The morning sun burned brighter each second. Soon, it would be scorching. Matilda took the canteen back to the stream.
On the way, her mind flip-flopped between strategies to help her grandfather and her mother. She wondered if Eliza and her mother would send help when Grandpa didn’t return from the country. When she thought of her mother, she was filled with shame. She should have been stronger, like Eliza. Her mother was disgusted with her and had always been.
Matilda shook the bad thoughts from her mind. She would focus on the positives. Her mother would heal at home. A carriage would find her and Grandpa and take them to the Ludingtons’ farm. A letter from her mother would be waiting for them that said Matilda could come home. Her mind strayed to the lost pantry and all the food Eliza had packed: cinnamon rolls, cheese, ham, and preserves. Her stomach rumbled.
At the stream, Matilda took off her petticoat and bathed in the cold water. She couldn’t help wondering what Nathaniel would say if he saw her...
The next day, Matilda woke to her cat, Silas, purring in her face. Grandpa was still asleep. She tiptoed down the stairs. In the light of day, she saw how filthy she was. Sweat and dirt covered her skin, and she itched. She hauled and boiled water for a bath, then scrubbed the blood and dirt from every inch of her body and hair.
With her body clean again, she needed clean clothes to wear. But everything she owned was in the trunk the farmer who’d abandoned them stole. The only option was her mother’s clothes, which she was not supposed to wear. She spoke a promise to the memory of her mother not to climb trees or roughhouse in her clean shift and blue-striped skirt. The clothes fit better than she’d thought, and she felt almost regal in them. She twirled so the skirt wooshed around her.
Grandpa was still asleep, and his breaths rattled. His face was pale and yellowed. She wanted to let him rest more, but there was work to be done. She woke him up, and in good Grandpa fashion, he immediately ordered a large breakfast of eggs, bread, and plums.
While Grandpa bathed, Matilda cleaned up the mess and cooked a meager soup. She suggested they look for meat or bread in the...
Seeing Eliza opened something up inside of Matilda. All the emotion she’d been holding inside since leaving for the farm came spilling out. She cried in front of Eliza until she released all her pain. Eliza’s first question was why Matilda wasn’t at the farm with her mother. When she found out Matilda and Grandpa had never made it there, she took Matilda and Nell home with her.
Eliza lived in an apartment with her brother, Joseph, and his two twin boys. Joseph was recovering from the fever, but his wife had not been so lucky. She’d died a few days before. The boys were close to Nell’s age, and the three played while Eliza and Matilda talked about everything that had happened since they’d last seen each other. Matilda tried to hide the bleak parts from her, but Eliza could always tell when she was lying. She forced Matilda to tell her the truth.
After Matilda told Eliza about the abandonment by the farmer, her stay at Bush Hill, and the intruders who’d killed Grandpa, she cried again. She felt responsible for everything that had happened and like a failure. Eliza pushed the notion away and shared her own story.
Lucille had recovered from the fever and headed to the...
Matilda woke up in the garden. She was slow to sit up and open her eyes, but once she did, she couldn’t believe what she saw. A layer of crystals covered the ground and plants. The first frost had finally come. The fever was over.
Matilda called to Eliza, and the two hugged and danced. They’d made it through alive. They brought a mattress outside and laid the children on top to help them cool down. The hot stench of death was gone, replaced by cool, crisp, and clean air.
A few days later, a messenger came with a basket of food from Joseph. The farmers were back in the city selling at the market again. Food never tasted so good to Matilda. By now, the children’s fevers had broken, and they were recovering well. When Joseph finally came to visit, he was overwhelmed with gratitude. Joseph hugged all three children and thanked the women for keeping them alive.
Joseph asked if Matilda had any news about her mother, but she hadn’t heard a word. He assured her that word would come soon and suggested she go to the market to find out the latest news. Matilda asked Eliza if she could go, but they both realized the days where Matilda needed permission were over. **She had...
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Fever 1793 is about a terrifying epidemic that kills thousands of people in just a few months, but there is more to the story. What else can you take away from Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel?
What is one characteristic you would use to describe Matilda at both the beginning and the end of the book? How does she demonstrate this characteristic?
Matilda was lucky to survive the fever and ensuing hardships, but many around her were not so lucky. Are there things you can learn about survival from Matilda’s experience?
What are two strategies Matilda used to persevere during the fever months?