Erin's Reviews > An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

An American Plague by Jim  Murphy
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Jul 05, 2010

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bookshelves: award, death, historical, non-fiction, tween, illustrated, medical
Read in January, 2009

I'm a big fan of history, and think that the past is a great source for story material, both real and imagined. Ever since I took a class and had to read A Midwife's Tale, about a midwife in the late 18th century, I've been especially interested in medical history. From fiction for younger readers, like The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman to grown-up non-fiction like Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn, medical history is fascinating. This book is no disappointment, integrating well-told chapters of the Yellow Fever epidemic with contemporary newspapers, illustrations and drawings. The one fault I found (and there was one in the Amelia Earhart Orbus Pictus winner as well) was a typo on page 47 at the beginning of chapter five that mistakenly had a date that I assume should have been "1790" or "1794" as "17940." So there was a moment of confusion, a stray thought that perhaps this is science fiction after all, and then I realized it must have been a mistake. But other than that, the story itself is truly fascinating, with heroes who stayed to help the sick and the cowardly who fled the city. Racial issues come to the forefront when the Blacks in Philadelphia offer to help nurse, and the medical debates are sobering.
Readers who enjoy history, medical history specifically, should enjoy this book. Readers who like tying primary documents and illustrations to the events they represent will also enjoy this. Those who like blood and guts and gross bodily functions might also be interested (the descriptions of the disease and its symptoms, as well as the burial problems are vivid). Although I believe this is well-written and combines facts with style, I can see how this might be dull to the intended age. Combining this with discussions on the beginnings of American government or about readers' current medical experiences might help. Using the documents and pictures to pique interest might also work.
Medical Philosophy. Racial tension. Death.
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