Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An American Plague

Murphy, Jim. 2003. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0395776082

Plot Summary
A strange thing happened one fall in Philadelphia. People started dying and it was unclear why. The streets were full of sewage, animal carcasses and "noxious bubbles to foul the air" (2). The number of deaths at first seemed small and contained. However, the fever soon spread to all parts of the city, forcing the closure of businesses, trade and even the federal government. This deadly disease ravaged Philadelphia, but the lessons learned and improvements made are beneficial even today.

Critical Analysis
The text of this book reads like a story instead of just a textbook summary of facts and figures thrown out at the reader. The words create a vivid picture of the events and people of Philadelphia in 1793. Each of the eleven chapters layered more of the story about this plague ravaging through Philadelphia. The vocabulary was simple and accurate. This would not be a book to read to younger children, but a third grader (or older) could read and understand the book. With exception to Chapter 10, most chapters averaged ten pages in length. The 12 point Times New Roman font helps highlight the graphics and headings of the chapters and is not too small for younger readers.

I enjoyed reading about the people involved with helping fight the plague. I did not realize that there were so many people living in Philadelphia in 1793, nor did I know that the Free African Society was instrumental in helping the city survive. "Volunteers from the Free African Society were the first to enter the homes of most fever victims" (50). When many people fled the city, this group of volunteers stayed to help. As I read this, I wondered if Jim Murphy was writing some "revisionist history" but when he cites later in the book a book that was published during the time by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, two elders of the Free African Society, my skepticism faded. The reference makes me want to explore this subject further.

At the beginning of each chapter, there is an illustration, usually a newspaper reprint of the time connected to what the chapter is about. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 begin with a list of the dead. "No one would ever know precisely how many Philadelphians died of yellow fever in 1793. Many of those who traditionally kept such count--ministers, sextons, and city officials--had either fled the city or been ill themselves" (101). Other illustrations are scattered through the book to reinforce the text. These illustrations are not Murphy's original work, but mostly lithographs borrowed from outside sources depicting the people involved with helping; some pictures are street scenes of the time or other newspaper reprints. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from someone of the time (1793-1795) with the exception of the last chapter which begins with an epigraph from 2001. Each chapter also begins with a specific date, as if the reader is reading the news of that day.

Within the text, Murphy includes diary entries from citizens and doctors trying to help the afflicted; newspaper headlines or articles from the papers in Philadelphia; first hand accounts of what people experienced and saw during this year of death. These sources give credibility to Murphy's account of 1793.

I found it interesting some of the tactics people used to protect themselves from this perilous death. "Strong-smelling substances, such as vinegar, be sprinkled on handkerchiefs and held to the nose to ward off the fever" (27). People wore vinegar soaked clothes to visit sick friends and family. "'Others placing full confidence in garlic, chewed it almost the whole day; some kept it in their pockets and shoes'" (qtd. in Murphy 27).

Jim Murphy includes a "Sources" section that is "a select list of sources, arranged by broad subject categories" (141). The book also contains an index to help the reader locate information within the text without having to read the entire book first. For doing research using this book, the index is helpful.

One thing I found distracting about the book was the last chapter. Reading this book, I've felt immersed into 1793, and then the writing shifts to 1858 and moves to present day. The last chapter discusses the research that's been done with yellow fever and how there still is no cure for it. The last two paragraphs shift from a third person narration into a first person sermon. I found this entire chapter to distract from the story of Philadelphia.

This book received numerous awards including a Newbery Honor and a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award.

Review excerpts

BOOKLIST: "History, science, politics, and public health come together in this dramatic account of the disastrous yellow fever epidemic that hit the nation's capital more than 200 years ago."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Black-and-white reproductions of period art, coupled with chapter headings that face full-page copies of newspaper articles of the time, help bring this dreadful episode to life. An afterword explains the yellow fever phenomenon, its causes, and contemporary outbreaks, and source notes are extensive and interesting."

*Read other accounts of the yellow fever and compare it to Jim Murphy's story. One example of historical fiction about yellow fever is Laurie Halse Anderson's book Fever 1793 (ISBN 0689848919).

*Research other diseases the ravaged society through the years. Make comparisons of what resulted from the disease. Have a health care professional come and talk to the class about different diseases that people once feared or those that are in the current news.

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