An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
by Jim Murphy
I absolutely loved this book. I was shocked that it was for kids! It was so gory and psychologically scary, and utterly compelling and informative. I definitely recommend it for people who love zombie plague stories. Or the 1700s. Or both!
This book tells the story of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. It starts out slow, listing one death, then several in a boarding house. Then, it spreads down the street and to other portions of the neighborhood until the entire city is infected. It chronicles the panic, how people left the city in droves, and abandoned family members. It describes in detail the horrifying symptoms (complete with illustrations), including vomiting black blood and bile. And it tells of the heroic efforts of those who stayed in the city to help, which to me was the most interesting part of the book: the survival efforts, what happens when government breaks down, the unlikely heroes. It concludes with the sociological aftermath, those who wished to forget the plague, those who pointed fingers, those who had to defend their actions. As an afterward, it tells of the discovery of the causes of yellow fever a century later, and a vaccine in the mid 20th century. It ends with a warning that there has been no recent vaccine for yellow fever, and if it reemerges, we would be almost powerless to stop it. Upbeat ending for a children’s book, huh?
And that is exactly why I loved it. I enjoy kids books that don’t pull punches. They tell it like it is. I feel that what kids fear most is the fear of the unknown. The things parents are whispering about, but won’t tell them straight up. The monster in the dark that you can’t see. I feel that adults are this way too. Once you know what something is, once you can name it, once you know how to fight it, it loses some of it’s power.
This book is not only compelling, but it is highly informative. Jim Murphy did extensive research into primary sources, including letters, diaries and personal accounts of those who were there. Because of this, he was able to build a very intimate and highly descriptive narrative without embellishing with fiction. It does what the best nonfiction does: place you there in the dirty, quiet street, watching another cart full of dead bodies creak by. You feel you know the historical figures personally.
I would recommend this book to my adult friends too! Nowhere in this book did I think for a moment that it was “dumbed down” for children. I think it is comparable to John Adams by David McCollough (though a lot shorter) or Devil and the White City by Erik Larson (but with less speculation)!
If you want a quick, informative, highly disturbing glimpse into a moment of real life in the 1700s, this is the book for you!
I recommend this book if you liked:
Devil and the White City by Erik Larson
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis