Surviving a Plague: How Yellow Fever Vanished

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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What was surviving a plague like for Matilda in Fever 1793? What caused the end of the yellow fever outbreak?

Yellow fever is spread through mosquito bites, so when the first frost-covered Philadelphia in Fever 1793 and killed the insects, Matilda knew she had survived the plague. The question, then, was what to do now that it was over.

Keep reading to learn what Matilda did after surviving the plague in Fever 1793.

Matilda Survives the Plague

Late that night, Matilda went to fetch more water. She could barely crank the bucket back to the top of the well. She didn’t remember the last time she ate or slept. The candles from inside cast shadows across the dead garden. How long ago it felt that Matilda had planted the seeds or tossed the dead mouse out the window. How far away Grandpa’s laughter at the cat chasing the squirrel seemed now. Overcome with fatigue and memories, Matilda laid among the dried rows and fell asleep. 

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, she had survived the plague.

So, what does one do after surviving a plague? Matilda called to Eliza, and the two hugged and danced. They’d made it through the plague 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 grown during the crisis and could make her own choices now.

A World Awakens

The market was teeming with people. The air was thick with laughter and merriment, and gossip and news fell from everyone’s mouths. Most talked about those who’d died and those still unknown. It would be weeks before reports of the people who’d fled returned. 

The German chicken farmer almost fell over when she saw Matilda. She was so happy to see Matilda alive and so shocked at how thin she was, she gave her two hens and eggs for free. Matilda told her about Grandpa and Lucille and asked that she spread the word that Lucille was missing. The farmer was a notorious gossip. Matilda knew word would spread quickly.

Matilda finished her shopping quickly, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave the market. She honestly didn’t know what to do now that she had survived the plague. Maybe she should go to the farm to find her mother? Maybe she should wait a few more days? And what if her worst fear came true? She’d have to sell the coffeehouse and move to the orphanage. She’d have to work as a servant for the rest of her life. 

Just then, Matilda caught sight of her reflection in a window. With her face so thin and pale, she resembled her mother more than ever before. She realized she didn’t have to do what anyone told her. She was from a line of resourceful and strong people. She would make it on her own if she had to. 

Matilda was about to leave when a hand landed on her arm. She turned to find Nathaniel Benson smiling ear to ear. Just like before, her stomach flipped. But as the two walked back to the coffeehouse together, she realized she wasn’t that silly girl anymore and relaxed. They discussed war stories and how strange it was for life to simply pick back up.

As they rounded the corner to her home, Matilda saw her neighbor pop out of a carriage like she’d just returned from a holiday. Nathaniel saw her face drop and assured her Lucille would be home soon. Matilda wanted to believe him, but doubt haunted her. 

Surviving a Plague: How Yellow Fever Vanished

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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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