Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Laurie Halse Anderson is one of the most gifted young-adult authors of the 21st century. Her 2nd published novel, Fever, 1793 tells the story of 14 year-old Matilda Cooke, strong-willed heiress to her widowed mother’s coffeehouse in post-revolutionary Philadelphia, and is a quintessential example of the higher-standards required of today’s young adult literature (R.L. Stein, take note).
For the history lovers, there are the historical names, places, and details of the worst yellow fever epidemic in U.S.history intricately woven into Mattie’s story. There’s the dry-heave-inducing accounts of yellow fever’s symptoms. There’s a sweeter-than-saccharine romance between Mattie and Nathaniel Benson, a ne’er-do-well, lowly painter’s apprentice in front of whom Mattie scandalously dares to show off her elbows (gasp!).
There’s Grandfather: General William Farnsworth Cooke “of the Pennsylvania Fifth Regiment,” who spends his days in the coffee shop, regaling the customers with stories of his days under General Washington, while doting on Mattie and his pet Parrot, “King George.” There’s Eliza: the Cooke family’s freed-slave chef who serves as a member of the Free-African Society and always shoots from the hip (“You’re too soft!” she tells Mattie, “You have city hands and a weak back. You wouldn’t last a week on the farm.”)
And, of course, there is Mattie, a typical teenager grappling with the woes of adolescence: awkward in her pubescent body, rebelling against her stoic mother’s rigid expectations while simultaneously seeking her hard-won approval, and trying to establish her own identity, under the most tumultuous of circumstances.
The novel begins with a sluggish introductory chapter which sets the scene and introduces the major characters, and through which I always have to coax my dubious students. But, by the end of chapter two, the story is catapulted into high-gear as it races towards the heart-wrenching climax (I am yet to make it through a read-aloud without tears), and a conclusion that leaves no loose ends untied as Anderson deftly concocts a well-balanced literary meal that is at once educational, suspenseful, and deliciously satisfying.