Fever 1793: Mattie Finds Nell and Her Own Purpose

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Fever 1793" by Laurie Halse Anderson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does Mattie find Nell in Fever 1793? Why does Mattie end up caring for her rather than putting her in an orphanage?

In the book Fever 1793, Mattie is wandering the streets when she runs into a child whose mother died of yellow fever. Mattie feels responsible for helping the girl but never planned on becoming her mother.

Keep reading to learn how 14-year-old Mattie becomes an adoptive mother in Fever 1793.

Mattie, Lost and Alone in Fever 1793

In Fever 1793, Mattie wandered the streets after the death of her grandpa. The houses of people she used to know were boarded up and abandoned. She thought about going to the orphanage, maybe back to Bridget at Bush Hill. But she couldn’t do either. She would take care of herself and wait for her mother to return. 

She went to the market to buy food, but there was no one there. She wandered past the printing office and found Mr. Brown distraught at his desk. She asked if she could print an ad for her mother, but he said he couldn’t. He was the only paper of five still in business, and he was running out of paper. He seemed to get lost inside his head, rambling about the loss of life. 

At the beginning of August, there were 40,000 people in Philadelphia, the most of any U.S. city. Now, half had fled, nearly three thousand had died, and those who remained were starving to death. Matilda thought about telling him about Grandpa, but there was no use. Telling him wouldn’t bring Grandpa back. 

Matilda stopped in front of the hatters and tried to peer inside. But an old woman with a cane got suspicious and struck her in the back. Matilda ran away, but she soon realized she was lost. She could see the boat masts in the distance and headed for the wharf. Her mind was haunted by dark thoughts. Grandpa’s body, thousands of others dead, her mother ordering her out of the house. She wondered what death would feel like.

She shook off the thought. Her grandfather would be so disappointed at the weakness she was showing. She needed to get home and figure things out. She turned to go but was stopped by a whimper coming from an open doorway. Inside, she found a small girl with blonde hair cowering in the corner of a small room, her mother dead from fever on the bed.

Mattie Finds Nell

The girl’s name was Nell. Matilda picked her up and comforted her. She didn’t know what to do with the girl. She couldn’t leave her there, but she couldn’t take care of her. She could barely take care of herself. She knocked on the neighbor’s doors to find someone to take Nell, but they all turned her away. A woman told her to try the Free African Society, which still met at the black church. The walk was long, especially carrying Nell, but it was closer than the orphanage or home. She picked up the girl and set off. 

Matilda entered the part of the wharf with taverns. Drunk men and sailors lazed about outside. She picked up the pace, wanting to get out of this part of town quickly. Up ahead, she saw the backs of two black women carrying baskets walking away from her. Something about the outline of one of the women was familiar. Then it hit her: Eliza. 

Matilda screamed Eliza’s name and tried to catch up, but a drunk man grabbed her and tried to dance. By the time she freed herself and Nell from his grip, the women were gone. She asked a woman hanging her laundry if she’d seen the women. She asked a man caring for his sick wife if he’d seen them. Both had seen them walking but didn’t know where they’d gone. 

Losing hope and feeling Nell’s weight increasing in her arms, there was only one thing to do. She put Nell down and screamed for Eliza as loud as she could. Suddenly, a figure appeared in a doorway. Matilda didn’t wait to be recognized. She flung herself into Eliza’s arms and hugged her tight. Eliza looked at her, shocked to see her. She was even more shocked to see the little girl in tow. 

Finding a Purpose

The next morning, Eliza left to perform her care duties, and an old woman named Mother Smith came to watch the children and care for Joseph. She reminded Matilda of her mother. Mother Smith followed her around all day tapping her cane and complaining about Matilda’s poor cleaning habits. 

When dinner was over and the twins had been tucked into bed, Mother Smith saw Matilda coddling Nell. She warned Matilda not to fall in love with Nell. Nell didn’t belong to her, and it wasn’t right for her to keep her. Mothering the child and then giving her away to the orphanage would be cruel. Matilda didn’t want to believe her, but when she mentioned it to Eliza and received a similar response, she knew she had to do the right thing. 
The next morning, Eliza and Matilda took Nell to the orphanage. A desperate woman surrounded by screaming children answered the door. She said they were full to the brim with children and hardly had any room left. If the women could find another home for Nell, it would be best. At that, Eliza and Matilda agreed to take Nell home. Matilda was overjoyed. Turns out she needed Nell’s love as much as Nell needed hers.

Fever 1793: Mattie Finds Nell and Her Own Purpose

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Laurie Halse Anderson's "Fever 1793" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Fever 1793 summary:

  • What the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 in Philadelphia looked like
  • How this epidemic exposed the vulnerability of everyone, including the wealthy
  • How an epidemic can impact a young person

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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