Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
I’ve never read Brooks’s novel March, which is probably her most well-known work. The main reason is that I never read Little Women as a child, and feel like I should probably get around to that classic before reading her vision of a character that plays an important role in the novel without ever appearing in it.
I have read her novel People of the Book, however, and really enjoyed it, and as a result was more than willing to pick up her first novel Year of Wonders when I saw it Barnes and Noble (since this was my first trip to Barnes and Noble in almost a year, I was very willing to pick up many books for very little reason . . .). I think I liked this one even more than her other novel. Also, being set in England in 1665/66, it actually had similarities to The Heretic’s Daughter, since both explore small communities reacting to circumstances that could make or break them and both deal with matters of faith and superstition.
Of course, for the most part, while Year of Wonders has moments that portray the evils of human nature, it also shows them at their best. After the plague comes to a remote mining village in England, the community decides to quarantine itself following the lead of their minister. Rather than attempt to escape or flee to other communities, the villagers all make an oath to remain there, thus containing the disease and preventing its spread throughout the area. A local earl agrees to provide them food for the entire time as they wait for the disease to run its course.
The novel begins after the plague has raged through the village, and killed many. The minister has lost his wife, and shut himself off from the rest of society, refusing to see anyone, including Elizabeth Bradford, daughter of the nobility and the one family in the area that chose to flee, and then never turned back or sent any aide to the village though they had the means to do so. Anna Frith, his servant, is the narrator, and after the opening, she takes the reader on a journey of the previous year.
Struggling for money after her husband’s death, Anna takes in a lodger, the tailor’s new assistant, a man that is both kind and generous but unfortunately, it is through him or a cloth he ordered that the plague comes to the village. While Anna herself survives (obviously), her home becomes ground zero for the disease and she loses both her children. After a few more deaths occur in the village, the inhabitants make their pact to remain together rather than flee.
For the most part, the community holds strong together and help each other, but they also turn on each other in their desire to find a cure and an explanation. As can be expected, the local healers are the first victims of this fear. Others quickly take advantage of their neighbors, charging them exorbitant amounts for services or using deaths and illnesses in families as a means of taking over their land and mines. Despite all this, the villagers stand by their pact. They may turn on each other and blame each other but they do not attempt to leave. Anna is especially impressed by the efforts and kindness of Elinor, the minister's wife and as the disease rages on, Elinor and Anna become close friends in their efforts to help their community.
The events in this novel were actually inspired by a true story, though Brooks said that there was not much documentation of the daily life within the plague village of Eyam. The characters are all fictional with the occasional "inspired by." As I said, it was rather simple story and many of the plotlines are rather predictable or at least recognizable, but I really, really liked this book. I think Brooks has a way of taking the old and cliched and making it seem real and new. And as I said, it might not be a bad follow up to The Heretic's Daughter if anyone liked that and wants to read more about small communities in the 17th century (even if this is takes place in England rather than the colonies).