An American Plague by Jim Murphy

Cover of An American Plague

*cough cough*

Murphy, Jim, An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. 2003, Clarion Books. ISBN: 0-395-77608-2, non-fiction

Quote: No one knew that a killer was already moving through their streets with them, an invisible stalker that would go house to house until it had touched everyone, rich or poor, in some terrible way.

Awards: 2004 Newbery Honor Book, 2004 Sibert Medal winner

Plot: In the late summer of 1793, people began falling ill in Philadelphia, PA.  As the sickness spread and became more serious, some people chose to flee in fear while others tried to help their fellow citizens.  The book also describes how people fought yellow fever breakouts through the present day.

What I Thought: I thought this was a fascinating book.  The entire story was new to me.  Since know one knew what caused yellow fever, doctors fought each other over treatments.  Government officials abandoned their posts to ordinary citizens who stayed in the city.  The consequences of the sickness were far reaching.  Since many white people fled, the free blacks became important as nurses, caregivers and community organizers, work which was unrewarded.  As Philadelphia was the seat of the new American government, the president himself had to evacuate due to the epidemic which threw the government into turmoil.  After describing how that epidemic ends, Murphy spends the final few chapters describing other outbreaks leading up to the present day.  The ending was a little scary: there is still no cure for yellow fever.  The whole book has this tone of impending doom as characters we’ve followed die and others get gravely ill.  It is very well-written and uses many primary source documents with pictures from the time.

Audience:  ages 11 and up.  History buffs and kids who enjoy “gross” things.

Strengths/weaknesses:  This is a very good book.  Parts are incredibly sad and some could be too intense for younger, or squeamish, readers.  Using the sickness as the central theme, Murphy explains the medicine, culture, government, and race relations of the time.  There’s also an extensive bibliography for further reading.

Uses: great for units on US History during the Revolution, medicine or Black History.

Read-alikes: A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy by Jim Murphy, Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science by John Fleishman, The Great Fire by Jim Murphy, a fiction work about the events of An American Plague: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Picture pulled from Barnes and Noble.


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