Book Review: Fever 1793

Sorry folks, I have been off sick. Pretty sure a fever (how appropriate!) north of 103 gets you off work, even if you work from home. But I don’t need my throat to work, so here I am. Back again.

FEVERThe following review is for Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson, published by Simon and Schuster in 2002. Anderson won the Margaret A. Edwards award for this and a couple other novels. My cover had the lighter yellow writing and no red, but I believe the various cover changes (none of them significant) were purely for aesthetics.

I have noticed this book staring back at me from bookshelves for the past couple years. It’s hard not to notice it, with its menacing yellow eye and it’s large proclamation: “Fever”! In fact, I was disappointed to later discover that the book is titled Fever 1793, and not simply Fever. I’m sure S&S had their reasons. However, despite its alluringly creepy yellow eye, I might not have ever read this book, until my daughter brought it home as a reading assignment. I really try to keep up with what my kids read. Sometimes it’s darn near impossible, but at least I’m doing one parental thing right: I know what my kids are reading, watching, and surfing. At the very least, I can discuss these things with them.

So on to Fever. It’s a fairly slim book of historical fiction about a fourteen year old colonial girl from Philly, named Mattie. Back then, Philadelphia was the capitol, home to President George Washington, and the largest city in the US at 40,000. Mattie is a typical teen, has a strained relationship with her widowed mother, an adoring relationship with her paternal grandfather, and a crush on the painter’s apprentice. She likes to sleep in, avoid chores, and dream of balloon rides over Paris. (Mattie did not actually exist, nor did her family or their coffee house. However, many of the characters did exist, and the dates and details of the place and epidemic are supposed to be extremely accurate.) Then Yellow Fever breaks out, again, but with the summer hanging on and on and on, the fever spreads quickly, leaving a trail of panic, death, and devastation that Philadelphia is not ready for. As the epidemic unfolds, Mattie must deal with loss, grief, rampant crime, unkindness, and fear.

I believe the best comment I have seen about this book is one of the subjects from an Amazon review: “fascinating yet distant.” Critics and readers seem to be pretty gaga over this book, and in no way would I discourage anyone from reading it. It is fascinating. And it’s relevant on so many levels (including running very similar to a post-apocalypse or zombie story or even like modern news stories of ebola). And it’s (from what I understand) very historically accurate. I read it in under twenty-four hours. It’s meant for middle grades readers, but it has some nice, challenging elements to it and I am sure is great for opening discussions on bigger themes, like public fear, policy, individual responsibility, humanitarian aid, etc.

LAURIE HALSE ANDERSONAnd yet, as easy as it was to smash through it and linger on the facts at the end of the book, I kept asking myself why I didn’t love it. It’s clean. Very clean. Straightforward. Messages and traditional plots all in a line and tied up neatly with a bow. And somehow it really is lacking in depth. Or nuance. Or something. That Amazon reviewer says that despite how much we find out about the characters, we never feel close to them. I will totally agree. I will extend this comment to the setting. And even the plot. On one hand, I was so happy to see the historically-based characters taking baths and making dinner–with very intriguing and accurate specifics–but the whole thing felt like the perspective of an outsider. Someone reading an interesting article. Put it another way: there’s a tremendous amount of sparkle missing from the book.

Let’s very haughtily re-write a sentence or two to show you what I mean.

“My city, Philadelphia, was wide awake. My heart beat faster and my head cleared. Below the window, High Street teemed with horsemen, carriages, and carts. I could hear Mrs. Henning gossiping on her front stoop and dogs barking at a pig running loose in the street.”

Do you see what I mean? Maybe not. Let’s try to rewrite this with sparkle.

“Philadelphia, my city, was already wide awake. The noise quickened my heart-beat, and the fresh, cool air cleared my head of grogginess. From the window, I could see the buildings stretching to the right and the left, and just a sliver of city peeking over top the blacksmith’s. Below me, High Street teemed with horsemen mounted high on horses whinnying and clopping a familiar rhythm amid barking dogs and a pig running loose in the street. Mrs. Brown chased after it, cawing out “Come ‘ere, you fat sausage!” as her skirts billowed behind her in the morning’s first dust. Mrs. Henning sat on her front stoop, throned on her [type of] chair, her eyes sizing up Mrs. Brown’s predicament so that she could gossip about it later.”

Or how about this one?

“The house was silent for a moment, except for the sound of Matthew down the block still hammering away at his forge.”

I feel like sentences like this should feel more pointed. Perhaps, like…

“It was as silent as the dead in the house, but only for a breath. In it, I could hear only the distant, rhythmic ‘clank! clank! clank!’ of metal hammer on metal anvil. I knew that would be Matthew, down the block, hammering at his forge.”

I don’t mean to say that everyone should write more flowery. Or slower paced. Heaven forbid. I just mean that what a reader sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches in a scene often shows them just as much about a story and its characters as what the author tells them about a story and the characters. You may think that details in great stories are random or superfluous. Rarely are they, really. In the example above, the added details to the street scene give us an unconscious sense not only of the nature of a turn-of-the-century American city street, but also of Mattie and what she would be noticing or thinking while hanging out of her bedroom window.

Let me also say, occasionally slowing the pace would have made the book much more enjoyable for me. I think the fast pace is good, especially for middle grades readers, but there was hardly any time-emphasis on anything. If the yellow balloon at the jail is an important symbol, why not take a paragraph or two and really put us there?

Other than that, though, this was an excellent book. I would recommend it for young readers, especially girls. I am torn between a three- and four-star rating on Goodreads, because I don’t want to discourage readers, yet I am aware of its narrative “distance.” Argh. (Am I a pirate, or is that the sore throat?) If you are at all interested in the subject matter, please give it a read. Also, I can see the benefit of adding it to required reading for middle grades. There’s a lot to be gleaned from this book, and even a fair amount to be enjoyed.

CHAINSYou might also want to check out Anderson’s Seeds of Change Series (trilogy) which will be complete with the next publication. It begins with Chains. For older people (YA and above), you may want to check out Speak, considered by some to be her best, but not for kids under high school age. Anderson also has many kids books. Her website can be found HERE.

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