Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Fever 1793": An education about yellow fever

Sometimes I am astounded about my lack of historical knowledge.

I consider myself a rather intelligent person who has an advanced degree plus years of extra schooling and workshops, and 15 years of classroom experience.  Unfortunately, I had the worst ever high school history teacher three years in a row.  His idea of teaching was sitting at his desk and going on tangents of his choosing with his hands behind the back of his head and his feet propped up on his desk.  Occasionally, he'd break out an ancient slide show while many students slept through it. I always volunteered to read the slides aloud for no other reason than to keep myself awake.

I've learned all of my history through self study and through reading historical fiction.  When I read a great one, I do more research to find out even more about a specific period of time.  During the time I taught, I did the same thing; I immersed myself in the history of whatever novel we read.  For "The Great Gatsby," I had the students study famous people of the time and then come to a "Shindig for Smarties" dressed as those people and interacting as them during Charleston contests and mingling.

Recently, my daughter Raina came home and told me about Laurie Halse Anderson's book, "Fever 1793." She said, "You've got to read this book, Mommy.  It's totally gross and totally amazing."  How could I pass up that perfect book review?

I happened to own a copy (leftover from my days in the classroom), so I cracked it open at lunch and didn't stop reading for over an hour.  I finished it that evening before I went to bed.  It's YA (maybe even considered middle reader) so the pace of the storyline is fast and furious.

The story revolves around 14 year old Mattie Cook who is stubborn and lovable.  She lives with her mother and grandfather in the year 1793 in the capital of the new United States, Philadelphia.  Her mother owns and operates the Cook Coffeehouse, and Mattie helps her as much as she can.  News starts to spread about a disease enveloping the city during one of the hottest and buggiest summers ever and people start to panic and flee the city.

The book quickly becomes a survival story when the disease infects Mattie's world and she needs to use all of her courage and instincts just to stay alive.

My daughter was absolutely correct in her review of this book being both totally gross and amazing.  Laurie Halse Anderson knows how to draw her readers into a story.  This is the first historical fiction book of Anderson's that I have read, but I have others on my shelf-  "Chains" (which was a National Book Award finalist in 2008 and won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2009) and "Forge".  "Fever 1793" received numerous awards including the ALA Best Books for Young Adults.

It's worth the praise and worth the education.  Anderson thoroughly researched the epidemic and included quotations from actual documents and diaries of the time period at the beginning of each chapter.  My scholastic version of the book even includes more historical information at the very end of the book, so after I read it, I felt like I had received a better education than my high school history lectures.

More than anything, by the end of the book, I was so thankful to be living with modern medical techniques.  We still have epidemics to contend with in our modern era, but hopefully we can learn from the not so pretty outbreaks in our history.

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