Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic o

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic o

Jim Murphy
For ages 12 and up
Clarion Books, 2003   ISBN: 978-0395776087

“All was not right” in the summer of 1793 in the city of Philadelphia. It was hot, and the city stank more than usual. At that time hygiene was in its infancy, as were many aspects of medicine. So, when yellow fever struck the city and began to kill more and more people with each passing day, panic ensued. Those who could afford to, fled the city; including the first president of the young republic, George Washington. There were many who could not flee, and for them the next few months were a living hell.

Jim Murphy has once again created a masterful, impeccably researched book which both enthralls and horrifies the reader. It is hard to imagine disinfecting a house by burning gunpowder and by bathing everything in vinegar. Even worse is being dosed with mercury if one was unfortunate enough to get sick.

One of the truly wonderful things about this book is that, as with Murphy’s other books, he manages to tell the whole story. We read about the selflessness of members of the black community who courageously tended the sick and buried the dead when no one else would. Their story is told in its entirety as is that of the remarkable mayor of Philadelphia, Matthew Clarkson, who would not allow his city to die. The people who were present in Philadelphia and its environs at that awful time are brought to life once more through Murphy’s skill as a writer.

Included in the book are illustrations, portraits of key players in the events described, and pages out of newspapers which were printed during the months when the plague held Philadelphia at its mercy. These provide the reader with a wonderful opportunity to read the very words of those who were experiencing the plague first hand. The reader will find suggestions on how to avoid getting the plague, and even worse, suggestions on what to do if you got it. All in all this is a wonderful book for anyone interested in history and in the ways of people. Readers may also enjoy some of Murphy’s other books including: “The Great Fire,” “Across America on an Emigrant Train,” and “Blizzard.”