Josiah'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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Dec 28, 09

Read in December, 2009

"Sometimes...I lose myself in looking back upon the ocean which I have passed, and now and then find myself surprised by a tear in reflecting upon the friends I have lost, and the scenes of distress that I have witnessed, and which I was unable to relieve."

—Dr. Benjamin Rush, An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, P. 101

An American Plague has to be one of the finest juvenile non-fiction books to be published in a very long time.

Jim Murphy has a splendid affinity for the non-fiction genre, and for all that writing good non-fiction entails: massive, nuanced research from every person and group's perspective of every prominent incident involved; a sensitivity to the real emotions of the people who lived through the situations written about, knowing that just because it may have happened hundreds of years ago doesn't mean that they felt their emotions with any less passion than we would; an ability to relate true events with the cohesiveness of a gripping narrative while not straying from the way things really were; and still other crucial writing traits that are essential to the creation of masterful non-fiction such as An American Plague.

The story of this epidemic fever in 1793 Philadelphia is one of tragedy and of real, resounding personal heroism, of real fearful people whose terror of the dreaded yellow fever was enough to cause them to abandon family and friends, and of equally real people who girded themselves and nobly stayed the course, even at enormous personal risk to themselves and, in many cases, their loved ones. It's hard for us in contemporary times to imagine a family of fourteen kids or more all being killed in a matter of days by a single illness, but that is the reality that faced the residents of Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1793. Jim Murphy brings this haunting reality to light for the modern reader with startling and often discomfiting clarity; to read An American Plague is to truly observe through the window of time the scene, as it was, when America's most severe epidemic began to attack.

Jim Murphy guides the reader through the entire epidemic and also through the miniature battles that were fought within it, especially the medical conflicts between Dr. Benjamin Rush and his followers and Dr. William Currie and his followers, battled out at a time when panic had thoroughly gripped the city of Philadelphia and all that the people wanted was someone who could step forward with a cure for their fatal scourge. The dramatics that resulted from the doctors' war of yellow fever theories add an intriguing and ever-present subplot to the book, and seem to affect almost everything that happens, to a certain extent.

One of the great things about this book is the author's profiling of a few magnificent American heroes who emerged to truly help the city of Philadelphia in its darkest hour; heroes who, for the most part, have now unfortunately receded into the anonymous shadows of history. That is quite sad, because these people absolutely are some of the most marvelous figures in all of American lore, I kid you not. In particular, the person of Israel Israel emerges as perhaps the ultimate hero, a man who put his own financial security at stake and went way beyond the call of duty that anyone could have ever had, to give the people and city of Philadelphia a chance to recover from its grueling plague. I came away from reading this book with a healthy reverence for Israel Israel and all that he did during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in American history, and in understanding the many and varied ways that past events such as this epidemic continue to affect the development of our nation. In many ways a yearling country is like a young person, and past traumatic events can lastingly sear their way into a young nation's psyche just as a child can be permanently damaged by painful occurrences in his or her own life. An American Plague is a fascinating and comprehensive historical account that contains information that should be of interest to nearly all readers.
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Quotes Josiah Liked

Jim  Murphy
“Sometimes...I lose myself in looking back upon the ocean which I have passed, and now and then find myself surprised by a tear in reflecting upon the friends I have lost, and the scenes of distress that I have witnessed, and which I was unable to relieve.

—Dr. Benjamin Rush”
Jim Murphy, An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793


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