Book: Jim Murphy. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. New York: Clarion Books, 2003.
Genre: Young Adult Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction
Audience: Grades 7-12 (and up)
Read-Aloud: And now I’m a zombie…
Summary: This novel follows the progress of the Yellow Fever epidemic as it sweeps through Philadelphia in 1793. It starts with the plague when it first hits and kills a few victims and then explodes into a full-fledged epidemic despite the best attempts of the doctors at the time. The novel follows the attempts of a few doctors, the mayor, and the Free African Society to stem the dreadful effects of the plague and to save the citizens of Philadelphia as best they can, but it is all to no avail. The medicine and doctoral practices of the time were too medieval to be of any use the doctors and their patients, with the plague only dying down when the colder fall and winter months come around. The novel then progresses through history and briefly discusses other instances of Yellow Fever and its effects on the United States, until the 1900’s when the cause and spread of Yellow Fever is finally stopped: mosquitoes.
Themes: The foremost themes in this novel are in regards to conflicts between science, religion, and folk remedies. During the beginning of the fever, many of the doctors used common folk remedies and tried and true medical techniques that were used at the time, some of which were just folk remedies that had worked in the past for fevers. Many of the citizens put their faith in God instead of seeking medicinal help as well, but that changed soon after droves of people started dying. Later as the fever started killing more and more people, the doctors started trying new techniques to try and save people. One of the most popular “cures” was to poison and drastically purge a person and then bleed them early into the fever to rid it from the body before it could take hold, but many argued over if this “cure” did more harm than good, which cause conflicts in the medical world.
Another theme that can be found in the novel that one would not expect would be that of race. During the plague in Philadelphia, there was a group of free African slave who had been united in a group known as the Free African Society. One of the doctors at the time implored them to assist the governing body of the city in clearing out houses, cleaning up streets, and helping those afflicted with the disease because he thought that Africans were immune to the disease, but only a few were due to previous exposure in Africa. They were hailed as heroes by the whites of the city and were paid handsomely for their services, as well as earning mass amounts of respect and love for their help. Then they started dying just as fast as the whites were and their newfound fame vanished just as quickly, showing just how poorly blacks were viewed by whites in the 1700’s.
Connections: This would definitely be a novel to teach along with a history teacher or health teacher’s classes. It deals heavily with history, medical techniques, and diseases, all of which can be found in some form or another in history and health classes. I feel that a good unit to create with this novel would be one that revolves around fevers, plagues, and other epidemics; real or fictional. One could use a unit such as this to explore the effects that diseases have on the psyche of those afflicted, how the government and society handle such diseases, and how medicine progresses in order to combat such diseases.
Reactions: I found this novel to be extremely informative and interesting, but that may be just because I love learning about history. The novel was definitely informative if anything and I found the visual images to be a nice touch to help supplement the text. The text is written like a history book, but doesn’t read like one and I liked that as it made for a more interesting read rather than a tedious one. I also just liked this text for the sole reason that it taught me about something I hadn’t previously been aware of.
Reception: TTLG Children’s Book Reviews said that: “Jim Murphy has once again created a masterful, impeccably researched book which both enthralls and horrifies the reader. It is hard to imagine disinfecting a house by burning gunpowder and by bathing everything in vinegar. Even worse is being dosed with mercury if one was unfortunate enough to get sick. One of the truly wonderful things about this book is that, as with Murphy’s other books, he manages to tell the whole story. We read about the selflessness of members of the black community who courageously tended the sick and buried the dead when no one else would. Their story is told in its entirety as is that of the remarkable mayor of Philadelphia, Matthew Clarkson, who would not allow his city to die. The people who were present in Philadelphia and its environs at that awful time are brought to life once more through Murphy’s skill as a writer.”
An Amazon.com book reviewer loved the book and said: “Having successfully turned this book into a tale of true terror (fun!), Murphy had to accompany his words with arresting visual images. If someone were to offer you your weight in gold if you could come up with five interesting images from 1793, I doubt you’d have much success. Murphy, however, is cunning. He begins his chapters with newspaper selections as they were printed during the height of the fever. He draws upon paintings of the major players (not, interestingly enough, easy ones like Washington). He even goes so far as to cull prints from other plagues and diseases (like England’s Black Plague of 1664) to give the reader some kind of an idea of what the streets of Philadelphia must have resembled. From early American advertisements (personally my favorite print in the whole book) to political cartoons where Uncle Sam condemns Amos Quito (put the words together) for crimes against humanity, Murphy bends over backwards trying to fill his book with visually engaging scenes and visions. Be sure to read the book’s acknowledgements and note about the illustrations for further fascinating information.”