Plague! (or, not “mellow yellow”)

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793; by Jim Murphy; published by Clarion Books, New York, 2003; 139 pages.

If you’ve ever wondered why communities spray for mosquitoes, this story will explain it in historically gripping detail.  Murphy employs primary documents, such as diaries, letters and newspaper articles, as well as extensive research in other print sources, to paint a portrait of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793.  Aside from the catastrophic number of deaths and debilitating illness, the “plague” shut down the fledgling United States federal government.  Philadelphia was the nation’s capital at the time, and with death creeping toward the President and Congress from the dockside streets, almost all government officials fled the city.  According to the Constitution, Congress could not be convened outside of the capital, which essentially crippled the federal government.  Human nature was put under a microscope as well, with  greed and selfishness juxtaposed with selfless service to other.  Indeed, even the medical profession struggled with limited knowledge and out-dated science.  But the epidemic helped to ignite a medical revolution of sorts, encouraging exploration for explanations outside of generally accepted science.  Of course the epidemic was a horrific tragedy in U.S. history, but many things we take for granted today, like knowing how to treat bacterial and viral infections, and how to spray to kill off disease-carrying mosquitoes, owe their existence to the tragedy of 1793.

If Jim Murphy wrote the history books used in schools, social studies grades would be outrageously high across the country.  His accessible language presents facts in an entertaining way.  I applaud his seamless inclusion of information from primary sources.  Quoting eyewitnesses to an event 200 years ago makes the story more real.  I can see why Murphy was selected as the 2010 winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award; I can’t wait to read more of this non-fiction accounts!  The book was also a Newbery Honor book (2004), a Sibert Award winner (2004), NCTE Orbis Pictus Award winner, a YALSA “Best Books for Young Adults” title, among other honors.

I can think of several ways to use this book.  First, I think it’s a no-brainer to pair it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever, 1793. Also, I’d use it to support journaling.  Why keep a diary?  Well, because 200 years from now, an author may use it to describe life in the early 21st Century!  Hmmm, I wonder if I need to print and bind my blogs, or will someone finally figure out how to archive/preserve the ‘net?

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 7-12+ (I found this in adult nonfiction at my local library; not sure I agree with that!)

Cover Art: The cover simulates the broadsides of the 18th century.  In my mind, there’s no question that this is a nonfiction book.  The cover alone will not encourage young adults to pick up the book; it’ll have to be recommended reading.

From Reading List: Margaret A. Edwards Award (2010)


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