by Laurie Halse Anderson
Fourteen-year-old Matilda Cook helps her mother and grandfather run a Philadelphia coffeehouse. (Who knew those were all the rage centuries before Starbucks?) One day, a yellow fever epidemic begins in the sweltering, mosquito-infested city, and life completely changes within the course of hours. Matilda and her grandfather flee the city and the disease, leaving Mrs. Cook fighting for her life. But both Matilda and Captain Cook fall sick as well. After her convalescence, Matilda returns to her family’s coffeehouse, where she has to decide between the easy road (taking herself to the orphan house), or fighting to preserve her family’s livelihood.
- Strong female protagonist: What girl doesn’t like reading a story about a girl power? It’s especially compelling for a character like Matilda who lives in a time when women (and even more so girls) had little standing in society. Matilda definitely strains against the limits put on her, but also learns how to live within those boundaries while remaining true to herself. Her coming-of-age set against the backdrop of such a difficult circumstance demonstrates Matilda’s strength and character.
- Historical facts: The yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 is historical fact, as are many pieces of Ms. Anderson’s novel. While Matilda’s story is a fictional one, all of the events surrounding it are true. Ms. Anderson includes a history section at the end of the novel, which really helps the reader understand the reality of what Matilda experienced.
- Grandfather: I think Grandfather/Captain Cook is my favorite character, just because he is so stereotypically grandfather-ish. He is gentlemanly, chivalrous, and generally adored by everyone who meets him. I admire that he stayed with Mrs. Cook and Matilda after his son died and helped them make their own way in a man-centered world. His final acts display the great love he has for his granddaughter.
What Doesn’t Work:
- The romance: Not that Matilda’s relationship with Nathaniel Benson doesn’t work, but it didn’t really do anything for me or for the action of the novel. I totally understand why Ms. Anderson included it though, because what 14-year-old girl doesn’t want to hear about the cute guy another girl has a crush on? 😉
I have read several of Ms. Anderson’s other young adult novels, and the quality of this one is no less excellent than her others. (If you haven’t read Speak, you really should! Or you can watch the movie, where Kristen Stewart actually does a pretty good job portraying Melinda.) This novel would be very useful as a companion novel to American history study in a junior high setting. I could also see a book club having a good discussion around this novel. It provides several talking points about historical events as well as the characters themselves.
P.S.-The title of this post could be misleading, I suppose! I decided to classify this book as “at the bottom of my pile” because I didn’t have it on my reading list–I just picked it up one day at the library. Besides, I needed a book for that category so I could check it off my list!
Photo credit/Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Fever-1793-Laurie-Halse-Anderson/dp/0689848919