July 6, 2012

An American Plague

AN AMERICAN PLAGUE: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy (Clarion Books, 2003)
GENRE: History - Nonfiction
HONORS: Newbery Honor (2003); Siebert Medal (2003); National Book Award Finalist (2003)

REVIEW: In the summer of 1793, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the temporary capital (and seat of the federal government) of the young United States. It was also a time bomb waiting to happen. Thanks to abnormally hot weather conditions and a wealth of mosquitos, dead animals, overcrowding and sewage back-up, it was also the site of one of the most devastating outbreaks of yellow fever in this nation's history. Well-researched and beautifully illustrated with archive prints, maps, letters and photographs, An American Plague unflinchingly details in the conditions that led to the outbreak, the heroism of the free blacks and doctors who tried to help the overwhelming number of sick, the medical practices of the time and the political crises that ensued. Murphy's hand is masterful and light, conveying historical detail with an immediacy that makes events 200 years in the past feel contemporary and relevant.

OPINION: An American Plague is one of the best works of nonfiction (for young people or adults) on medical history and the early days of the United States that I have ever read. Murphy's attention to detail is rivaled only by his instincts - he seems to know exactly how much detail to give. With such a gruesome disease, it would be easy to gloss over its affects, just as it might be tempting to relish the gory details. Murphy does neither, but sets a professional, yet accessible tone, while drawing the reader into a fascinating, if little known, tragedy.

IDEAS: A fantastic supplement to classroom discussions on the early federal government. Also a great suggestion for young people interested in medical history or researching the contributions of African Americans in history. Also pairs well with the novel, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.

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