Title: An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
Author: Jim Murphy
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: June 23, 2003
This eleven chapter Newbery Honor Book recounts the horror of the yellow fever epidemic that held the city of Philadelphia in its grasp in the summer and into the fall of 1793. The disease that chased thousands out of the City of Brotherly Love also succeeded in shutting down the Pennsylvania and federal governments. In this novel, Murphy tells the tale of the baffled physicians, the dedicated Free African Society nurses and caregivers that remained to help the ill and dying, and the middle class citizens who risked imprisonment for their choice to serve on city government and keep the city moving.
I am not at all a fan of nonfiction books. However, I really enjoyed reading this novel. From the beginning, Murphy sets out to create a setting that honors the reality of the situation while drawing the reader in and hooking him in the dire situation. The descriptions of characters such as Benjamin Rush paint a colorful portrait of the individuals who fought the dreaded disease. "He was passionate and outspoken in his beliefs; no matter what the subject... Along with his beliefs went an unimaginable amount of energy. Despite a persistent cough and weak lungs... he worked from early in the morning until late at night..." (Murphy, 2003, p.12) The book also includes drawings of various characters, when available that lend to the shaping of that person in the reader's mind.
Further, each chapter begins with an excerpt from the newspaper accounts of the time. These clippings help to support the author's points regarding the news reports of the day. In a later chapter, Murphy discusses the issues that surrounded the printing business due to the lack of imports arriving and the problems that arose for publishers. Philip Freneau, editor of the National Gazette, for instance limited fever never, avoided obituaries, was vague about the spread of the disease, and never mentioned the rise in the crime rate perhaps because Freneau had to limit himself to one page rather than his usual four to eight. (Murphy, 2003)
Overall I would highly recommend this book. It was balanced in its praise of the positive choices and in its criticism of choices that would impact the city of Philadelphia and the country for the short and long term. Additionally the author offered a balanced accounting of those who stayed to assist the ill and those who fled. This author was more generous in his accounting of the events than was publisher Matthew Carey, an individual who sat on the emergency council of twelve that ran the city of Philadelphia during the crisis. Carey published A Short Account of the Malignant Fever Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia... in which he openly criticized the Free African Society nurses for raising their prices to an almost usurious price. In his criticism, Carey neglected to mention the bidding war by the whites in the area which caused the price "gouging" and as a result generated the first African American written response to accusations in the United States.
Due to the graphic nature of the illness and some of the information contained in the book, I would limit exposure to this topic to children sixth grade and above. While none of the book is grotesque, the description of yellow fever symptoms that arise accompanied by the veracity contained in the book might best be evaluated by children who have a basis in history and are able to understand the events within the context in which they occurred.
From School Library Journal
Grade 6-10-If surviving the first 20 years of a new nationhood weren't challenge enough, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, centering in Philadelphia, was a crisis of monumental proportions. Murphy chronicles this frightening time with solid research and a flair for weaving facts into fascinating stories, beginning with the fever's emergence on August 3, when a young French sailor died in Richard Denny's boardinghouse on North Water Street. As church bells rang more and more often, it became horrifyingly clear that the de facto capital was being ravaged by an unknown killer. Largely unsung heroes emerged, most notably the Free African Society, whose members were mistakenly assumed to be immune and volunteered en masse to perform nursing and custodial care for the dying. Black-and-white reproductions of period art, coupled with chapter headings that face full-page copies of newspaper articles of the time, help bring this dreadful episode to life. An afterword explains the yellow fever phenomenon, its causes, and contemporary outbreaks, and source notes are extensive and interesting. Pair this work with Laurie Halse Anderson's wonderful novel Fever 1793 (S & S, 2000) and you'll have students hooked on history.
Mary R. Hofmann, Rivera Middle School, Merced, CA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Gr. 6-12. History, science, politics, and public health come together in this dramatic account of the disastrous yellow fever epidemic that hit the nation's capital more than 200 years ago. Drawing on firsthand accounts, medical and non-medical, Murphy re-creates the fear and panic in the infected city, the social conditions that caused the disease to spread, and the arguments about causes and cures. With archival prints, photos, contemporary newspaper facsimiles that include lists of the dead, and full, chatty source notes, he tells of those who fled and those who stayed--among them, the heroic group of free blacks who nursed the ill and were later vilified for their work. Some readers may skip the daily details of life in eighteenth-century Philadelphia; in fact, the most interesting chapters discuss what is now known of the tiny fever-carrying mosquito and the problems created by over-zealous use of pesticides. The current struggle to contain the SARS epidemic brings the "unshakeable unease" chillingly close.
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1. Use excerpts from the book as a springboard for class discussion and comparison/contrast assignment based on early American government.
2. Have students take positions and debate whether Congress could have constitutionally been moved out of Philadelphia, arguing the viewpoints of Jefferson, Madison, and Adams.
3. Introduce a unit on health and wellness and the importance of sanitation. Ask students to evaluate the sanitation conditions at the beginning of the novel with later improvements. Use the maps provided and have students develop a sanitation plan for the city that might have relieved some of the disease's progress.