An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

I took a class earlier this summer where I had to read a lot of literature for youth and thought I’d share some of the more interesting books I read for the class. I have to say I read more non-fiction and realistic fiction then I usually would, but I have an appreciation for them now…and hey, at least I wasn’t reading dusty tomes. Oddly enough it was a bit scary reading this considering there’s been an outbreak of West Nile virus where I live, and everyone’s been talking about mosquitoes, mosquitoes, mosquitoes! Aaahh!!!

Details, Please
Jim Murphy in eleven chapters tells about the city of Philadelphia during the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic. He starts from its beginnings in the small forgotten alley houses and writes of the class differences during the time, and how the Yellow Fever had no preferences really. He tells about the people who deserted the city and those who decided to stay. It is an overall picture of the time, and it is thorough enough to keep anyone interested.

So what?
I definitely would not have picked up a book on any kind of epidemic willingly, which is weird when you think about it because I love reading dystopian books when it’s fiction. Having said that however, I was impressed with this book. It takes you through the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 in a very interesting way. Murphy takes a narrative stance but it’s also in chronological order as the outbreak takes over the city. Each chapter begins with a date like a journal entry and describes what happened at that time. It was also interesting to read about some of the “preventative” measures people went through to avoid the Yellow Fever like walking around with cigars and shooting muskets in their home because it was believed that the smoke powder would keep the fever away.

It was also neat to learn about the heroes at the time, like the Free African Society members who despite their mistreatment at the time decided to stay and nurse sick families. Even Matthew Clarkson the Mayor, and the doctors who stayed behind to help were among the bravest. It was like reading a little bit of trivia on every page (some bizarre), and for such a deadly subject, it was a captivating read. No wonder Murphy is sometimes referred to as the Master of Disaster. Actually I would say he made history interesting and was a master in making it come alive. I would actually like to read the rest of Jim Murphy’s books, and although intended for younger readers I learned quite a lot. An American Plague received a lot of awards including the Sibert Medal, a Newbery Honor and was even selected as a National Book Award finalist. This book could be used for both research purposes and for pleasure reading. It feels odd saying that, but it’s true. Have you guys read any good nonfiction lately?

Review Excerpt

“Quoting diverse voices, from private diaries to published accounts…Everywhere, Murphy is attentive to telling detail; he offers representative images in the illustrations, from black-and-white portraits of figures in the narrative to plague scenes themselves, often taken from (clearly labeled) European settings when the visual record didn’t exist for Philadelphia. The chapters open with facsimiles of newspaper pages and lists of the dead, actual notices and announcements made during the plague. Thoroughly documented, with an annotated source list, the work is both rigorous and inviting. A final chapter answers questions readers may have about “what happened next”–including how science subdued the threat and how the genie might yet get back out of the bottle.”

-Burkam, A. L. (2003). An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. Horn Book Magazine, 79(4), 483-484.

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