Matilda Cook lives with her hardworking mother, grandfather, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and Eliza, a freed slave who works as their cook, in the apartment on top of their family coffeehouse in Philadelphia. Matilda ("Mattie") Cook is 14 years old with big dreams for her family's coffeehouse. When the yellow fever epidemic breaks out during the summer, people flee the city or die. Matilda realizes she has to fight for her own life and her loved ones.
Her father died in a fall from a ladder. In 1793 yellow fever is spreading through Philadelphia. The people close to Matilda are dying. First, many of her neighbors are infected, then her childhood friends, including Polly, their serving girl, then her mother. She and her grandfather try to flee to a family friend's home in the country, but they are left behind because of guards patrolling the path. (They kept the sick out of other cities, and thought her grandfather ill because of his cough.) Matilda falls ill with the fever and is taken to a hospital by her grandfather. They return to their house, to discover it was robbed by thieves. The next night, men broke in while Matilda was sleeping. She had screamed, which woke her grandfather up. Grandfather tries to save Mattie, and ends up being killed when he flies back toward the stairs after shooting an old rifle at the thieves.
After this, Matilda is desperate and searches for Eliza, finding Nell, another fever orphan along the way. Finding Eliza, Matilda recuperates with her family for a while. Eliza's two nephews and Nell become infected with yellow fever. Matilda and Eliza take them to the Cook Coffeehouse, but available medicines have little effect. Frost kills the mosquitoes and ends the epidemic. Near the end of the book, Lucille comes back with the President. She is well but needs to take naps and take care of her health. At the end of the book, Matilda decides to take up a new job, as owner of the coffeehouse with Eliza, and life returns to...
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