Path of the Pale Horse
post written by Emma Filbrun
Title: Path of the Pale Horse
Author: Paul Fleischman
Major Themes: Disease, Yellow Fever, Epidemic, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Doctors, Family Read-Alouds, Historical Fiction, US History 1783-1860
Synopsis: During the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1794, Lep does his best to help the sick—and questions whether his medical knowledge has any value.
Sometimes a book you had never heard of before turns out to be a great read. I saw Path of the Pale Horse suggested in our history guide, and found it in the online library we use. We found this book to be very well-written and fascinating, and the more I think about it, the more parallels I see to our current COVID 19 pandemic. People haven’t changed much in 200 years!
Lep lived with his mother and sister Clara in Danfield, some distance west of Philadelphia. When their benefactor of many years ago showed up at their doorstep in need of assistance, both financial and personal, Clara went with him to Philadelphia, along with their last pair of silver candlesticks. Fourteen-year-old Lep stayed home to pursue his medical studies with the village doctor.
Then, one day, Lep’s employer needed to make a trip to Philadelphia to replenish his herbs, and Lep went along. His mother had by now heard of the plague of yellow fever ravaging the city, and gave Lep instructions to bring his sister home. Unexpected problems changed Lep’s plans, and he found himself helping the good doctor to nurse the sick in the city—as he tried desperately to convince Clara that the man she was assisting was a fraud and a liar.
Lep was positive that the cures the doctor used were effective—they had to be! He worked as hard as he could to save lives, and at the same time to expose superstitions for what they were. But, would he survive to leave the city—and would Clara?
Of course, we now know what causes yellow fever, and we laugh at what the people of 1794 thought. Some believed that the sun would cause it. Others thought that burning tobacco or brimstone, and filling the house with the smoke, while dousing people with vinegar as they entered the house, would prevent the disease. Still others wore a tar-soaked rope around their neck to ward off the sickness. Of course, we now know better—but with the current pandemic we’re facing, I’ve been hearing some theories that are just about as far-fetched. All of them sound plausible, but they can’t possibly all be true. I’ve come to the conclusion that people haven’t changed much in the past two centuries!
Path of the Pale Horse is historical fiction, based on a real event, the yellow fever epidemic of 1794 in Philadelphia. After reading this book, you won’t soon forget about that event, or about doctoring and medicine at the time. This book is a good addition to a study of the early history of the United States.
WARNING: Chapter 1: blasted country cowpaths, damnable potholes, great blazing comets, blasted roads, cursed the horses. Chapter 4: great blazing comets. Chapter 9: Lep tells several lies.
Read Aloud—Ages 8 – 12, 10 – 13, Family Read Alouds
Reading Independently—Ages 8 – 12, 10 – 12, 12 – 15
Keywords: Disease, Yellow Fever, Epidemic, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Doctors, Family Read-Alouds, Historical Fiction, US History 1783-1860