** spoiler alert **
This was an amazing story and I was able to read it within 2 days. I would recommend this book for 5th through 12th graders and even beyond. I have to admit that I love historical fiction, but even for someone who doesn't love this genre, this is truly a remarkable book. I saw the world through Mattie's eyes and felt what she felt. I commend the author on their research of this time period. Being able to see the world through a character's eyes only occurs when an author 'sets the scene' with authentic time period details and historical accuracy in regard to the place, people and characteristics of speech and behavior. Laurie Halse Anderson, the author, did all of this and more.
We find the main character, Matilda aka Mattie, living with her mother above a family-owned coffeehouse in Philadelphia, shortly after the American Revolution. George Washington is president and the city is currently the capital of the newly established United States of America. Mattie is constantly hounded by her proper, image-driven mother, Lucille. Mattie father was a simple painter, which caused her mother's wealthier family to disown her for marrying below her station. Lucille makes Mattie's teenage life a nightmare and expects her to do her bidding without question. Eliza is a black, free-woman, whose now-deceased husband bought her freedom before his own untimely death. Eliza, throughout the story, is the voice of common-sense and silent strength for almost all the characters involved.
Shortly after the story begins the city of Philadelphia is attacked by yellow fever. Mattie and her grandfather, Captain William Farnsworth Cook, a delightful character who loves the women in his life with all his heart, are sent into the country after Lucille comes down with yellow fever. Unfortunately, they never make it to the country and after the Captain falls ill by the side of the road, Mattie sets out to find help for her grandfather. Mattie falls ill shortly after she begins her search and ends up in a makeshift hospital being run by French doctors who have treated yellow fever in the West Indies. After Mattie becomes well she and her insufferable grandfather, who did not have the fever, again set out to return home.
The Philadelphia, Mattie and Captain Cook find, is not the same one they left weeks before. The city is practically vacant and those that remain cling to life by robbing others or remaining locked in their homes. We travel Philadelphia and see it through Mattie and the captain's eyes. One evening, the coffehouse is set upon by thieves and the Captain succumbs to injuries he suffers at the hands of the robbers. Eventually Mattie finds Eiza, who has remained in the city to provide care and solace for all and everyone left in the sickened city. During her travels Mattie has aged and has acquired a young child, Nell, whose mother died from the fever. Eliza takes Mattie and Nell with her to Joseph's house, her brother who has been widowed with two small boys to care for.
Throughout the yellow fever outbreak we see the person Mattie is becoming yet still not embracing. As the fever begins to abate and life in Philadelphia begins to return to some state of normalacy, the coffeehouse is reopened and Mattie decides to make Eliza an equal partner in the business. Mattie has finally taken control of her life and is creating her own destiny. As Mattie begins to adjust to her life as business owner, and mother to Nell, Lucille returns from the country, a shadow of the woman she once was. Mattie becomes the her mother's care-taker and looks forward to life on her own terms.
This book would be a wonderful addition to any unit study of this period of time in American history. Even though it portrays fictional characters, the yellow fever outbreak and its effects are accurately portrayed. This book could be used with a true, historical account in a compare and contrast activity. This book could also serve as a mentor text to inspire students in their own writing pursuits.