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An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Newbery Honor Book) Hardcover – June 23, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Grade 6-10-If surviving the first 20 years of a new nationhood weren't challenge enough, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, centering in Philadelphia, was a crisis of monumental proportions. Murphy chronicles this frightening time with solid research and a flair for weaving facts into fascinating stories, beginning with the fever's emergence on August 3, when a young French sailor died in Richard Denny's boardinghouse on North Water Street. As church bells rang more and more often, it became horrifyingly clear that the de facto capital was being ravaged by an unknown killer. Largely unsung heroes emerged, most notably the Free African Society, whose members were mistakenly assumed to be immune and volunteered en masse to perform nursing and custodial care for the dying. 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. Pair this work with Laurie Halse Anderson's wonderful novel Fever 1793 (S & S, 2000) and you'll have students hooked on history.
Mary R. Hofmann, Rivera Middle School, Merced, CA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Gr. 6-12. 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. Drawing on firsthand accounts, medical and non-medical, Murphy re-creates the fear and panic in the infected city, the social conditions that caused the disease to spread, and the arguments about causes and cures. With archival prints, photos, contemporary newspaper facsimiles that include lists of the dead, and full, chatty source notes, he tells of those who fled and those who stayed--among them, the heroic group of free blacks who nursed the ill and were later vilified for their work. Some readers may skip the daily details of life in eighteenth-century Philadelphia; in fact, the most interesting chapters discuss what is now known of the tiny fever-carrying mosquito and the problems created by over-zealous use of pesticides. The current struggle to contain the SARS epidemic brings the "unshakeable unease" chillingly close. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 10 - 12 years
  • Grade Level: 5 - 7
  • Lexile Measure: 1130L (What's this?)
  • Series: Newbery Honor Book
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Clarion Books; First edition (June 23, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395776082
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395776087
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jim Murphy began his career in children's books as an editor, but managed to escape to become a writer, entering a life of personal and creative happiness and enduring financial uncertainty. He's convinced that the latter keeps him coming back to his computer to write every day and feels that a sense of impending doom is the doorway to creativity. He has never counted the number of books he's published (feeling the time and energy is better spent doing research and writing) but guesses that he has over thirty books to his credit. Jim's work has been honored with numerous awards, including two American Llibrary Association Newbery Honor Book Awards, an ALA Robert F. Sibert Award and Sibert Honor Book Award, three National Council of Teachers of English Orbis Pictus Awards, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and a BG/HB Honor Book Award, two SCBWI Golden Kite Awards, and been a finalist for the National Book Award. Recently, he was given the ALA Margaret A. Edwards Award for "his significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature."

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 50 people found the following review helpful By E. R. Bird HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover
It is an indisputable fact that disasters are a lot more fun to read about than they are to live through. Sure, we might enjoy flipping through a tale covering the potato famine or the crash of the Hindenburg, but would you really want to experience them first hand yourself? Not likely. Author Jim Murphy has always been particularly talented at writing about the disaster genre. His "The Great Fire" is one of the finest non-fiction glimpses into the devastating 1871 Chicago conflagration ever produced. To my mind, however, he seems to make his various projects particularly difficult for himself. The Great Chicago Fire did not have any photographs to include for interest, though it did contain copious newspaper illustrations and documents. Such is the case with Murphy's more recent creation, "An American Plague". Delving deeply into the Yellow Fever epidemic of the late 18th century, Murphy attempts the near impossible: Make colonial America interesting. Worse, make colonial American interesting to kids. And dang it if he doesn't pull it off.

Framing the tale as a kind of mystery, Murphy starts slowly. He introduces us to some of the characters that would become important during the disease's height. As we read we find ourselves in the hot steamy smelly streets of Philadelphia. President Washington is having some difficulties with his Proclamation of Neutrality regarding the French. The Reverend J. Henry C. Helmuth is proclaiming that soon the city will be feeling God's displeasure due to Philly's rampant debauchery. And in a small boarding house on North Water Street, a French sailor has come down with a fever. The plague has begun.

Murphy's excellent at picking up the pace in this story.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By K. Davis on July 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This dramatic account of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 is riveting. It is packed with historical facts and presents the horror of the disease, the implications for the city of Philadelphia and neighboring areas, and the reaction of both the townspeople as well as those in power with vivid detail.

Politicians, the medical community, common people, orphans, the poor are all brought to life before our eyes and we feel their pain, we share their misery, and we gain insight into what life was like for them during this terrifying time.

Author Jim Murphy chronologically follows the beginning of this epidemic, making us feel as if we were actual witnesses to this American Plague, using quotes from those who were there, newspaper clippings, period engravings and portraits.

Additionally, we are shown true acts of courage and selfless behavior as Mr. Murphy tells us of great men and woman who risked their lives to help their fellow people, and some who ultimately sacrificed their lives. He also unravels the controversies, particularly among the medical community in regards to the reaction to the disease and discusses bloodletting, ingesting poisons, bathing in vinegar, purging air with gunpowder, inhaling black pepper as well as other practiced modes of treatment.

Some people may find the descriptions of the disease and the progression of the illness horrifying, but it is truth nonetheless, Yellow fever is nothing short of horrific. I believe this fascinating book is truly deserving of the many awards it has earned. This very visual and brilliantly written book is a great tool for you to use in teaching this part of our nation's history to your children.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By David Evans VINE VOICE on June 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Murphy tells a captivating story about Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in this young adult tome. First, he provides a compelling narrative of the epidemic itself, replete with first-hand accounts of witnesses. Then, he tells us something of what happened in Philadelphia after this particular epidemic, illuminating the important impacts this event had on such diverse aspects of life as a public water system and whether the U.S. President can call Congress outside of the capital city.

He goes on to explain the unfortunately major role of yellow fever as a U.S. killer for over a century. We then learn how scientists eventually discovered the cause (mosquitos carrying the virus) and a vaccine.

Murphy's inclusion of relevant details adds to the evocative account of the tragedy itself. For example, we feel the irony when - in the midst of doctors and quacks expounding a range of potential ways to avoid the fever - an unknown author submits a letter to a newspaper suggesting that city residents kill the mosquitoes hatching in their yards. The remedy is not heeded. Likewise, in the midst of the panic that the epidemic created, a meteorite actually lands in the middle of the city, adding to the apocalyptic frenzy.

This book is an excellent introduction to the importance of public health issues in U.S. and world history. I sent a copy as a gift to a young friend with a taste for history today.

(Special note on the audio version narrated by Pat Bottino: he sounds too much like sportscaster Howard Cosell for my taste, with every sentence delivered as a sharp staccato.)
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