The novel begins on a hot August morning in 1793. The narrator, Mattie, is woken by her mother, who is annoyed that her daughter is still sleeping. There is tension between Mattie and her mother because Mrs. Cook often compares her daughter to herself. Mrs. Cook grew up in a wealthy family during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and learned to work very hard. Mattie is growing older, and becoming more impatient with her mundane life. She dreams of travel and new experiences. As Mattie gets dressed, she hears the sounds of the bustling city of Philadelphia all around her. She knows her mother is annoyed because Polly, the household serving girl, has not arrived yet. Mattie suspects that Polly is late because she is flirting with her sweetheart, Matthew. Mattie continues to muse on her desire to escape from her day-to-day life and thinks to herself that the only person who seems to understand her is a young man named Nathaniel Benson.
Mattie goes downstairs to the kitchen where her mother continues to scold her for being lazy. Mattie's family runs the Cook Coffeehouse, and the household consists of Mattie, her mother, her paternal grandfather, and Eliza, their employee. Mattie's father was a carpenter who established the coffeehouse business when Mattie was a very young child. When the coffeehouse was first opened in 1783, business was slow, but it has improved as Philadelphia has become a more important city. Between 1790 and 1800, Philadelphia served as the temporary capital of the United States, so at this point in time, President George Washington is living in the city, not far from the coffeehouse. However, Mattie's father died in an accident shortly after the business opened. His father moved in and has lived there ever since, helping Mrs. Cook to run the business. Mrs. Cook has proved to be a very competent woman even though she grew up in a more privileged family. Her own family disowned her when she married Mattie's father because he was not a wealthy man. Mrs. Cook has had to adapt to life as a widowed mother, and business owner. Mattie's mother and Eliza have a close bond because Eliza also lost her husband several years ago. Eliza was born a slave and her husband saved up for years to purchase her freedom.
Mattie begrudgingly begins the household chores, only to learn shocking news from her mother: Polly Logan has not arrived because she fell ill with fever, and died suddenly. As Mattie tries to process this loss, her mother frets about her health and makes it clear that she does not want Mattie to go anywhere near the Logan house in case she also falls ill. Mattie is very angry that she will not be allowed to attend the funeral of her friend. As customers arrive at the coffee house later that day, they gossip about the rising number of fever cases in Philadelphia and speculate about what could be causing them. Mattie's grandfather, Captain William Farnsworth Cook, is a former war hero who fought during the American Revolutionary War, and he has many friends in Philadelphia. Mattie overhears one customer suggesting that the fever cases might be a sign of a yellow fever epidemic, but most of the others dismiss this idea.
One week later, sixty-four people have died, although no one is sure what disease is causing these fatalities. People are starting to avoid certain neighborhoods, but fortunately, this has meant an increase in business for the coffeeshop. Mattie has been so busy that she has not been able to leave the house, but on August 24, her mother reluctantly agrees to send her to the market since groceries need to be purchased for the household. Mrs. Cook has been thinking of sending Mattie to stay with friends in the countryside, as she fears that Mattie will get sick. Mattie hates this idea; fortunately, her grandfather also objects. While Mattie is visiting the market, she runs into Nathaniel Benson, the boy to whom she is attracted. Nathaniel asks Mattie to come fishing with him, but the pair is distracted by church bells tolling out the news that more people have died. Mattie reluctantly heads home.
The novel begins with an age-old theme: tension between a mother and daughter as the daughter approaches adulthood and begins to desire greater independence. The representation of Mattie's personality at the start of the novel highlights how much she will mature over the plot, and how much she will be changed by the impact of the epidemic. At the beginning of the novel, Mattie is somewhat willful and spoiled. She doesn't appreciate all of her mother's unceasing hard work, and she resents any restrictions on her freedom. Mattie's initial portrayal shows both how far she has to go to become the sort of person who can survive the brutal circumstances of the epidemic, but it also hints at some of the personal characteristics that may help Mattie to survive later in the novel. Mattie's stubbornness and ambition will later give her motivation to survive when her circumstances become much more difficult. At this point, Mattie can idly dream about traveling and seeing the world, but later, her vision of a future for herself will become much more focused on staying alive.
The start of the novel hints that Mattie's somewhat negative portrayal of her mother is not entirely accurate. Readers learn about Mrs. Cook's history, and the details of her life suggest that Mattie and her mother are actually quite similar. Mrs. Cook was clearly a strong-willed and free-thinking young woman who followed her heart to marry a man from a very different social class. At this time in history, this type of marriage would have been very controversial, and Mrs. Cook has paid a steep price because she no longer has contact with her family and has had to live a life of hard work rather than pampered leisure. Interestingly, Mattie resents her life at the coffeehouse because she was born into it and never had a choice; she wants something different for her future. Mrs. Cook chose her life because she loved Mattie's father; as a result, she's had an unconventional life that has required her to be adaptable and resilient. Especially as a woman born into the upper-classes, she would not have grown up prepared to work hard and run a business. While Mattie cannot see it, her mother's strictness likely comes from wanting her daughter to grow up to be competent, capable, and well-equipped to take care of herself.
While Mrs. Cook has worked hard to build a life for herself and her daughter as a single mother, she is also clearly supported by a close-knit but conventional family structure. She and Captain Cook seem to operate as fairly equal partners, and Captain Cook can be a father figure to his granddaughter. The close relationship between Mrs. Cook and Eliza shows that Mrs. Cook can see beyond racial divisions as well as class divisions. In 1793, slavery was still legal in a significant portion of America, and even in places like Philadelphia where slavery was not legal, neighborhoods and businesses were usually quite segregated. Presumably, Mrs. Cook feels a bond with Eliza because she recognizes that they are both women who have lived unusual lives and suffered significant loss. While both Mrs. Cook and Eliza lead very independent lives, they are able to do so because they work as a team and support each other. The unusual multigenerational and multiracial family in which Mattie grows up hints at the importance community and interconnected relationships will play throughout the novel.
The first few chapters of the novel depict the earliest days of the epidemic, where both the personal and public impact begin to intertwine. Sometimes, individuals might feel disconnected from a significant threat if it does not directly impact them or someone they know, but because Polly is one of the first victims of the fever, Mattie is immediately personally impacted. Mattie experiences both the grief of a shockingly sudden loss and the frustration of not being able to enact rituals that typically help to mitigate grief. Mattie's inability to attend the funeral of her friend shows that the epidemic will totally disrupt normal patterns of life, above and beyond the death it will cause. At the same time, Mrs. Cook's protective impulse shows that she is clearly a loving and cautious mother.
While the personal impacts of individual deaths play out, rising fear and panic also show the broader social impact of the disease and how it will draw the entire city into its orbit. At this time, there was a lack of proper medical information that made it hard to understand how diseases spread and how to effectively prevent them. There were also limited ways to share news and information, which led to gossip and hearsay quickly taking over. In this fearful atmosphere, class- and race-based prejudices quickly began to take over and influence ideas of how to stay safe and which neighborhoods to avoid. Because of the type of business owned by Mattie's family, they are in a unique position to hear the various competing rumors. At this point in time, coffeehouses were important social-gathering places where middle- and upper-class men could gather to discuss news, ideas, and politics. However, in an atmosphere where no one really has accurate information, rumors and gossip add to a maelstrom of fear and confusion. This unsettled and disunified atmosphere was particularly tense given that it had only been a few decades since a war had been waged on U.S soil over political disagreements. Disagreements between former friends and neighbors could take on new weight in this climate: as Thomas Apel explains, "Besides killing thousands, yellow fever disrupted commerce and spread discord, and discord in the body politic threatened death to the republic" (pg. 321).
As anxieties rise, Mrs. Cook turns to a traditional practice of evacuating individuals to countryside regions, where infection rates would often be lower. With lower population densities and sometimes access to cleaner sources of water, more rural areas were often perceived as safer, although there could be significant outbreaks of disease there as well. The debate about whether Mattie will go to the countryside reflects her liminal status as an adolescent: she desires independence but her mother still desires to protect her. The interruption of Mattie's growth to maturity is symbolized on the day that she and Nathaniel plan to go fishing but get interrupted by the tolling of the bell announcing deaths. As a teenage girl, Mattie should be spending time exploring her feelings and desires, but she is soon going to be forced into much bigger life-and-death questions.