Mattie Cook lives with her mother and grandfather above the family's coffee shop when the historic 1793 yellow fever epidemic hits Philadelphia. After Mattie's mother becomes ill, Grandfather takes Mattie to the countryside to stay with friends. The journey is interrupted first by Grandfather's heart trouble and then by Mattie's contracting the fever. The two finally return to Philadelphia to discover the city in ruins (including their coffeehouse), and Mother is nowhere to be found. Grandfather's subsequent death leaves Mattie hopeless and alone until she's reunited with the family's black employee, Eliza.
At the time of this epidemic, most blacks in Philadelphia were free because the Quakers believed slavery was against God's will. Mattie tells a merchant that she goes to church because her mother never lets her stay home. She prays on several occasions and reads from the Psalms, thanking God for His providence and deciding she'd like to end each day reading from the Bible. She even stops herself when she begins to ask for God's punishment on those who ransacked her family's coffeehouse. Eliza prays faithfully and fervently for the fever victims, and Mattie later follows Eliza's lead in caring tirelessly for the sick and their families. An egg seller rants, saying those getting the fevers are sinners afflicted by God because they don't go to church.
Mattie's mother is a harsh, bitter woman since the loss of her husband. She is weaker and more compliant after her battle with the fever, and she allows Mattie to take over the adult responsibilities at the coffeehouse. Affectionate, loving Grandfather is a war veteran who teaches Mattie how to be a good soldier. His lessons prove useful when they're stranded far from home, and he saves her life despite his own health problems. Prayerful, faithful Eliza provides a solid example of godly compassion for one's fellow man. President George Washington returns to Philadelphia after the epidemic slows. His presence provides hope of a return to normalcy.
Other Belief Systems
Though Mattie and other main characters adhere to Christian beliefs, it could be argued that Mattie's ultimate success in overcoming hardship isn't duly credited to God but to the power of self-reliance and personal strength.
In a few scenes, people are “bled,” which some doctors then believed would get rid of the toxins causing yellow fever. People also vomit blood a few times. The descriptions aren't excessive or gratuitous, but it may make readers queasy.
American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults 2001; International Reading Association: 2001 Teacher's Choice and more.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Mattie had to endure many things.
Did you find her situation frightening? Depressing? Explain.
- Do you think God took care of Mattie, or do you think she survived these troubles because she was a strong person?
- Why do you think tragic events, such as the epidemic written about in this book, are allowed to happen?
- In what ways did God provide for and take care of Mattie, in spite of all the terrible things that were taking place?
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