Matilda Cook

The novel’s protagonist and fourteen-year-old narrator. Matilda is between childhood and adulthood. Her mother treats her as a child at the start of the yellow fever epidemic, as do Grandfather and Eliza. Matilda wishes for more independence but isn’t prepared for being thrust into adulthood and the role of protector for Mother, Grandfather, Eliza, and all of the helpless citizens of Philadelphia.

Mrs. Lucille Cook (Mother)

The mother of Matilda Cook and the daughter-in-law of Captain William Farnsworth Cook. Mother is a widow and owner of the Cook Coffeehouse in Philadelphia. She has been abandoned by her own family. She is protective of Matilda but after contracting yellow fever, can no longer watch over her. Mother disappears after Matilda is sent away, but Matilda is motivated by her mother’s strength even in her absence.

Captain William Farnsworth Cook (Grandfather)

The grandfather of Matilda Cook and the father-in-law of Lucille Cook. Grandfather moved in with the Cooks to help the women after his son died. Grandfather is a veteran of the Revolutionary War, having served under General Washington. Grandfather give Matilda “soldiering lessons” which help her on her journey of survival through the epidemic.


The cook of Cook’s Coffeehouse, the sister of Joseph, and the aunt of Robert and William. Eliza is a formerly enslaved person who is a friend of the Cooks and looks after Matilda. Eliza is a member of the Free African Society and bravely aids the people of Philadelphia during the epidemic.

Nathaniel Benson

A painter’s apprentice. Nathaniel studies under Mr. Peale, and although he is looked down upon by Mother and Grandfather, he offers hope to Matilda who has affection for him.


The orphaned girl Matilda finds in the street. Nell’s mother dies of yellow fever and Matilda takes the responsibility of caring for Nell when the orphanage is full.

Mother Smith

A member of the Free African Society. Mother Smith cares for Eliza, Joseph, Robert, and William after Joseph’s wife dies of yellow fever and while Eliza is out helping the people of Philadelphia. Mother Smith reminds Matilda of her own mother and teaches her important lessons about responsibility.

Robert and William

The twin sons of Joseph and the nephews of Eliza. Eliza promised Robert and William’s mother before she died that she would care for them, a vow that proves devastating when they contract yellow fever.


The brother of Eliza, father of Robert and William.

Mrs. Bridget Flagg

The caretaker at Bush Hill.

Mrs. Pernilla Ogilvie

The mother of Jeannine and Colette Ogilvie. Pernilla is a high-society acquaintance of Lucille.

Jeannine Ogilvie

The daughter of Pernilla. The sister of Colette. She often judges and insults the Cook women for not being high class.

Colette Ogilvie

The daughter of Pernilla and sister of Jeannine. Colette is the first yellow fever patient that the Cook women see.