Mattie's mother was the first of their family to get sick. When she fell ill, she allowed their employee, Eliza, to stay with her, but sent Mattie and her father-in-law, away. After leaving, Mattie also fell ill. She was able to be nursed back to health, and by the time she made it back to Philadelphia, her mother was missing. Mattie didn't know if her mother had died or if she had gone after Mattie.
Mattie and her grandfather moved back into the coffeehouse, where her grandfather was killed by intruders. Mattie then went to look for Eliza, finally finding someone she could stay with and help through the epidemic. On her way to find Eliza, she met a young girl, Nell, who had just lost her mother. She allowed Nell to join her and took care of her. She worked with Eliza for weeks, tending to those who fell ill from yellow fever. The epidemic finally ended in late October, after the first frost came. It was then that Mattie's mother came back. They were reunited at the family coffeehouse and continued their lives in the wake of the epidemic.
Laurie Anderson wove real people into her story. Mattie had a young suitor, Nathanial, who lived with and worked with the Peale family. Although Nathanial was fictional, the Peales were a real family who endured the tragedy in 1793. According to Anderson's notes, they were "the first family of American art." Anderson also wrote about Dr. Rush and the French doctors and their argument over which treatment was better for yellow fever. Dr. Rush believed in herbs, medicines and "bleeding" the sick, while the French doctors believed in fresh air, rest and fluids. In Anderson's notes, she states that it is believed that Rush's medical practices most likely killed more people than he helped and it was the advice of the French that should have been taken.
At the beginning of the book, Mattie was a bratty daughter. "Children did what was asked of them. And mother n ever complained. Oh, no, never. Good children were seen and not heard. How utterly unlike me." Mattie always thought she was better than her plight in life. She believed her mother was old-fashioned and didn't understand the grand ideas Mattie had -- wanting to go to France, adding on to the business, dating Nathanial, and they fought over her work ethic constantly. Anderson showed great development in Mattie, as by the end of the book, she was a loving daughter, and quasi-mother (to Nell), a business owner and a grown child who could make her own decisions.
I feel as though this book is authentic to the time and Anderson did a very good job of incorporating true history into this story. There was constant mentioning of Jefferson and Washington, as well as her use of real families and doctors. She had pages of notes at the back of the book, explaining her research on the epidemic, the doctors, the Peales, food markets, famous people affected by the fever and reactions of those who were able to flee from Philadelphia.
Watch the trailer below and find the book at Worldcat.