Fever, 1793: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

When yellow fever starts claiming lives in Philadelphia, will Mattie and her family survive? Learn more about Mattie's story and some of the important characters in this summary of Laurie Halse Anderson's 'Fever, 1793'.

Falling Ill

Have you ever been really sick? Nowadays we have plenty of doctors and medicine for those times we get sick, but that hasn't always been the case. In the past, illnesses were often deadly and sometimes there was no way to stop their spread. Author Laurie Halse Anderson writes about such a time in Fever, 1793. Inspired by the yellow fever epidemic that struck and killed almost 5,000 people in Philadelphia in the late summer months of 1793, Anderson's story follows Matilda Cook. As we summarize Anderson's book, we'll highlight some of the important characters.


We begin on August 16, 1793, during a stifling hot Philadelphia summer. Matilda, better known as Mattie, has many of the same problems as 14-year-olds today. She's not interested in chores or working in her family's coffee shop. Her widowed mother, Lucille, hasn't been the same lighthearted woman since Mattie's father died and doesn't approve of the guy Mattie has a crush on. Eliza, a black woman who had been freed from slavery in Virginia and now works for Lucille, is Mattie's closest friend.

All of Mattie's worries seem pretty small when Mattie receives word that her childhood friend Polly has suddenly died from some mysterious fever. However, Polly isn't the only death from the fever, and soon rumors are flying. Everyone has a different theory: the deaths are caused by yellow fever, by bad coffee, by immigrants. It soon becomes clear that it is indeed yellow fever, and the death toll grows quickly.

Lucille is a strict, businesslike woman and has hopes Mattie will end up marrying well. She worries that maybe they should follow the example of others and send Mattie to the country. Mattie's grandfather, ''Captain William Farnsworth Cook of the Pennsylvania Fifth Regiment,'' argues that it's nothing more than the normal late summer fevers. As a former soldier, William has strong opinions about the government and military, but he's also a loving man who spoils his granddaughter.


Mattie wants to stay put, but the decision is made for her when Lucille herself gets sick. William finally agrees to take Mattie to the country. As they're traveling, they're stopped by guards checking all travelers for signs of yellow fever in order to keep the illness away from their population. William's cough may not be yellow fever but it scares the soldiers, and Mattie and William aren't allowed in.

Things soon take another turn for the worse when Mattie faints because she's contracted yellow fever. She wakes up to find herself in Bush Hill, an old mansion that had been renovated to be a hospital for those sick with the fever. Unlike doctors in town who believe that taking huge amounts of blood from patients will cure them, the men running Bush Hill believe in cleanliness, rest, and healthy food. With this care, Mattie soon starts to recover.

Bush Hill doesn't have the space to keep Mattie once she starts getting better, and she and William head back to the city. Everywhere they look there are yellow pieces of cloth tied to doors to show which houses have the fever in them. The city is a mess. So is the coffee shop, which has been burglarized while they've been gone. Mattie tries to clean up and salvage what she can from the garden, but there's almost nothing to eat.

As if this isn't bad enough, two more men break in during the night. Mattie and her grandfather manage to fight them off, but the strain is too much for William and he dies. As Mattie walks home from the graveyard, she runs into a young girl named Nell who just watched her mother die. Mattie picks the girl up and starts walking. Up ahead, she sees a couple of women coming out of one of the homes. There's something familiar about one of them - it's Eliza!

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