Summary: Chapter One: August 16th, 1793

Fourteen-year-old Matilda Cook wakes up to her Mother, Lucille, yelling at her to come help with work in the coffeehouse. Matilda gets ready for the day and looks out the window to admire her city of Philadelphia, capital of the United States at the time. 

Summary: Chapter Two: August 16th, 1793

Matilda goes to the kitchen to help Mother prepare for the day. Eliza, the cook, arrives, and she and Matilda discuss why Polly Logan, the serving girl, has not arrived yet. Mother goes to look for Polly and returns with the news that Polly has unexpectedly died. 

Summary: Chapter Three: August 16th, 1793

Mother explains to Matilda and Eliza that Polly developed a fever and, in less than an hour, was dead. Matilda reminisces about playing with Polly when they were younger. When Matilda begs Mother to let her visit Polly’s family or attend Polly’s funeral, Mother refuses, saying she doesn’t want Matilda to get sick.

Analysis: Chapters 1–3

The early chapters of Fever 1793 introduce the protagonist, Matilda “Mattie” Cook, a hard-working adolescent on the verge of adulthood, and illustrate her strained relationship with another main character, Matilda’s mother, Lucille.  Matilda narrates the novel, and her first description of Lucille Cook is of her unpleasantly demanding that Matilda wake up and start working in the family coffeehouse immediately. Matilda daydreams about hot-air balloons and far-away places like Paris because she yearns for freedom from the prison of her childhood, which is dominated by an overbearing mother and weighty responsibilities at the family business. Matilda outwardly wishes she could be treated like an adult, but her daydreams focus on the fun aspects of being an adult, like traveling without restriction. Matilda fails to see that responsibilities like her job at the coffeehouse are also part of being an adult. News of Polly’s death strikes Matilda deeply because Polly is her own age, a development that reveals one of the themes of the novel, becoming an adult by overcoming challenges. Lucille, who worries for Matilda’s safety, makes her work hard, and wants the best for her future, serves as a foil character to Matilda, who longs to break free.  
Although this section mostly serves to describe Matilda’s normal world before the yellow fever epidemic, several aspects of the later narrative are foreshadowed in these early pages. In the first line, the only sound Matilda hears before that of her mother yelling is the persistent buzz of mosquitoes.  Mosquitos are a recurring symbol, foreshadowing the start of every onset of yellow fever. Matilda also describes the setting of Philadelphia in 1793 in great detail, suggesting the city itself will play a big role in the story. Finally, Matilda describes watching the first hot-air balloon launch, which really occurred in Philadelphia in 1793 as city residents watched. A French man named Jean Pierre Blanchard manned the giant yellow balloon as it soared above the city.  To Matilda, the balloon symbolizes freedom and escape from the prison of childhood and responsibilities. However, the giant yellow balloon taking over everyone’s attention also symbolizes the impending epidemic.