Thursday, March 24, 2016

LS 5603 20 Review: An American Plague by Jim Murphy

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
by Jim Murphy 

Murphy, Jim. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. New York: Clarion Books, 2006. ISBN 9780395776087

Plot Summary: 
Jim Murphy writes an interesting, insightful piece about the illness known as the yellow fever and the toll that it took on the nation, but most specifically in Philadelphia. He uses first-hand accounts to chronicle the power of the illness and how it related to the beliefs and medical practices of the time period. Murphy also focused on how specific people handled the contagious outbreak from free African Americans to George Washington, whom was President at the time. Murphy also delves into possible cures for the disease, though these things did not come about until almost a century later.

Critical Analysis: The Yellow Fever is something that is often learned about in history class, though not in depth to the degree that this book allows. While I had not read anything by Jim Murphy before this book, nor had I even heard about him, I learned a great deal of him after deciding to read one of his books for the module. He has written a great number of books, a lot of them informational, which does help to make him seem a credible source. He has a positive reputation for these types of books, which is imperative, especially when using a book with young adults. Murphy includes almost fourteen pages of sources in the back of the book, including first-hand accounts. He stated in the sources section that he "consulted a great many books, newspapers, magazines, personal journals, and letters" (Murphy, p. 141). This shows that Murphy is knowledgeable about the topic, and if he was not he sought out a reliable source. These things work together to make the book quite accurate. 

The organization and design of the book is appealing, and it does seem like it would draw young adults in well, despite the fact that the book looks more like a "chapter book" than a picture book. As for organization, the book is broken up into chapters. While there are not any subtitle, each chapter is labeled with a date that helps readers maintain chronological order and avoid confusion of time frame. This means that each chapter is a day or event, breaking up the text in a way that is more easily digested for all ages. The design of the book is quite good as well. There is a map at the front so that readers can have an idea of what area is being discussed as they read the information. At the beginning of each chapter there is a page that includes magazine or newspaper print which adds interest, especially since all of the pages provided are relevant to the book. There is a plethora of clear pictures used, each accompanied by a caption so that the reader can easily determined what is happening in the picture, and why it would be included. 

As far as style of the writing goes, it seems that Murphy did a wonderful job. He included a great amount of information for the readers, while not making it completely overwhelming. Instead of taking a medical approach, which would have been easy to do based on the topic, Murphy discusses the Yellow Fever in a way that can be understood by anyone regardless of their medical knowledge. He brought in emotion and interest, making it far from a boring, textbook-esque read. The dialogue from first-hand accounts adds to the slightly narrative style as well. 

Review Excerpts: 

From Publisher's Weekly: "In marked contrast to the clipped, suspenseful pace of his Inside the Alamo (reviewed above), Murphy here adopts a leisurely, lyrical tone to chronicle the invisible spread of the deadly disease that not only crippled Philadelphia (then the temporary capital of the U.S.) but also set off a constitutional crisis."

From School Library Journal: "As far as the story goes, we may not know what to expect, but we’re secure in its descriptions: “I get it,” we may be saying to ourselves. “I can picture this world—it’s weird and cool. I wonder what’s going to happen?”"


-This is a wonderful book to supplement a social studies classroom when discussing the same topic or time period. 
-Other books that can be paired with this text: The Secret of the Yellow Death by Suzanne Jurmain and Frontier Living by Edwin Tunis. 

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