Laurie Halse Anderson
When I went looking for Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson's second book, I couldn't find it in the Young Adult section of the bookstore. Her first book, the brilliant and painful Speak, was there, along with most of the books listed inside Speak's cover as "other Puffin books [I] may enjoy." But Fever was shelved with the grown-up books. At the time, I figured it was because it was a more adult book then Speak, which is very much about how much it hurts to be a teenager. After reading Fever, however, I have to wonder if the good folks at Barnes & Noble actually read the books they carry.
Speak is about Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman in Syracuse, New York. She's not enjoying her first year of high school very much; the previous summer, she called the police on a big party and now everyone hates her. Her friends have scattered, each joining a different social clan and leaving Melinda alone. She can't tell them what happened to her at the party, what made her call the cops. She can't tell anyone much of anything, in fact. Over the course of the school year, Melinda becomes virtually mute, refusing to speak to anyone about anything. It's a pretty simple story, but Anderson tells it vividly, giving readers a good look at what makes Melinda tick and why she's not ticking properly anymore. It's bleak, funny, sophisticated, and deadly accurate about how awful high school can be. Melinda is very lonely, to the point that when her one friend deserts her, Melinda is "desperate to be her pal, her buddy, to giggle with her, to gossip with her. [She wants] to paint [her] toenails." The fact that she's losing a friend she never really liked much anyway, one who was much more concerned with fitting in than with being nice to her first friend at a new school, is not lost on Melinda. But she doesn't have anyone else.
Melinda's school is a truly memorable place, like an ordinary high school gone terribly wrong. Her teachers have her marked as a delinquent while the other students despise or ignore her. There are a few lights in the darkness -- her art teacher is understanding, and her lab partner stands up to their tyrannical history teacher -- but they're the exceptions. Some characters are almost too horrible, so grotesque that the few people who show Melinda kindness really stand out. Her parents can't understand what's wrong with their daughter and need to work out their own issues before they can even get started on Melinda's. For the most part, Melinda has no one to rely on but herself, and she's not reliable at all. She has to teach herself to speak again on her own, and pull herself out of her depression without any help. When Melinda finally gets her voice back, it's a triumph. I cheered for her.
Fever 1793, on the other hand, feels like it was written for a much younger audience than Speak. It's about Matilda Cook, a middle-class girl in late eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Her mother and grandfather run a successful coffeehouse; they employ a former slave named Eliza as their cook. Matilda's life is happy and untroubled until a yellow fever epidemic hits, and her world falls apart. Her mother vanishes, her grandfather dies, and she herself barely survives the fever. It should be an exciting story of triumph over adversity against harrowing odds -- you could describe Speak that way and be accurate -- but it never really comes together. The characters are flat, the setting idealized, and I never quite believed in Matilda. I can't figure out how so many people in the late 1700s were brought up entirely free of race or gender prejudice, but Matilda is one of them, and she runs into an awful lot more on her travels. There are a few scenes that remind me of just who was writing this thing -- a fever-induced dream, in particular, had Speak's vivid style -- but the book as a whole never really captivated me. I kept waiting for Matilda to be more than a cardboard character, for her to stop falling in with unlikely groups of good-hearted people, but it never happened. I finally threw up my hands and gave up on the book near the end, when, after surviving the fever with the help of Eliza's family, adopting a fever orphan, reopening the coffeehouse with Eliza, and generally triumphing over adversity, Matilda gets a boyfriend. I mean, really.
I read through to the end, but I had lost hope that the ending would have anything to do with real life. And I was right. In what possible world could a white girl and a black woman co-own a business in 1793 without drawing a speck of negative attention? The only such place seems to be the world Anderson created for Matilda. It's a world full of characters who are pure and noble and good, but with very few who act like real people.
Despite the major suspension-of-disbelief problems I had with Fever, I probably would have forgiven all if Anderson had created another protagonist as memorable as Melinda. No such luck there; Matilda is your standard headstrong colonial girl. She's independent and willful, refusing to let others push her around, which should make me like her. It doesn't, though, because I still have no idea why Matilda survived (besides the fact that she had a lucky streak wider than the thirteen colonies). The book didn't put me inside Matilda's head the way Speak did for Melinda. Melinda never got a break, and she made it anyway; as written, Matilda gave me no indication that she would have beaten the fever without luck and the kindness of strangers.
Anderson has a new book out, called Catalyst. It's set in the same high school as Speak, which gives me hope, but I won't expect miracles. From what I know, Catalyst is about a successful high school student, the kind of person I really hope doesn't apply to the colleges I want to get in to. Judging by Fever, Anderson's success stories don't make very engaging reads. In the future, I hope she sticks to screwed-up, unhappy characters with humor blacker than a moonless night; she's proved very good at telling them.
by Laurie Halse Anderson