Posted by: Lizzie Ross | March 31, 2010

Epidemic as literary trope

Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (2000), Aladdin, 243 pp.

Epidemics are a useful plot element. We get to see protagonists struggle to battle nature and the worst elements among fellow citizens, and then be surprised when kindness appears in the midst of horrors. Very uplifting, when not completely disturbing. Anderson’s book, because it’s YA, is of the uplifting sort, but with sad scenes–you can’t write about epidemics without people dying.

Defoe, Camus and Poe used bubonic plague; Anderson uses yellow fever, whose gross-out moments involve vomiting of blood and treatments of mercury and blood-letting, only a bit friendlier than the worst aspects of the Black Death. There are also young children found sitting next to their dead parents, someone in the streets yelling “Bring out your dead!”, and a Monty Pythonesque moment of the heroine regaining consciousness as two men debate whether she should be buried.

Mattie, her mother, and grandfather live in Philadelphia, where President Washington is serving his second term. Towards the end of a hot summer, yellow fever arrives, those who can decamp, and this once thriving town is soon populated only by the dead and dying, along with a few brave souls who have stayed to help–and, of course, pillagers.

How Mattie finds strength to survive is the story here. It’s suspenseful, not completely predictable, and full of historical details.

Books/stories/novellas about deadly epidemics: Daniel Defoe, Journal of a Plague Year. Albert Camus, The Plague. EA Poe, “Masque of the Red Death”. Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner that Held Them. They’re all worth reading.


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