This historical novel for young adults details the horrors of the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793 from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old, Mattie, who runs a coffeehouse with her widowed mother and grandfather. In the course of the story, her mother is taken ill, she herself falls ill on the way to the safety of the countryside, and her grandfather dies of heart failure after nursing her. Separated from her mother who is also removed from the city, Mattie finds herself scrabbling for survival in a mostly deserted town after the death of her grandfather, but relocates the free black woman, Eliza, who had worked for her family and who essentially becomes part of her family.

Eventually the mother returns, an invalid but alive, and Eliza and Mattie undertake to run the reopened coffeehouse together and care for Eliza's nephews and an orphaned child Mattie has rescued. Hope reappears with the first frost in the forms of a reopened farmers' market, the return of George Washington to the town, and the reappearance from enforced isolation of Nathaniel Benson, a young painter who gives Mattie a vision of a future life with friendship and love.


Engagingly written, this story of survival and courage is told with frank detail about the hardships of caregiving in the midst of a public health disaster. Mattie, who is considered a child at the beginning of the story, has to grow up fast, make unforeseen decisions, and take responsibilities she never dreamed of. She manages with common sense and the love of a good woman who herself is engaged in caregiving within the "free African community."

The relationship with the mother is emotionally problematic in the beginning; it becomes clear that her husband's death has embittered her. At the end, illness has profoundly changed the nature of their love and dependency on each other. Provides a memorable glimpse into medical history for young people. Each chapter starts with an epigraph from period documents and an appendix giving more historical information invites readers to further inquiry.


This book won numerous awards: American Library Association (ALA) Best Books for Young Adults selection, Junior Library Guild selection, Children's Book-of-the-Month selection, Parent's Guide to Children's Media Award, "Pick of the Lists," American Booksellers Association, and 100 Best Books of Fall selection, New York Public Library.


Simon &Schuster

Place Published

New York



Page Count