In September 1665, a box of cloth travelled 160 miles north from plague-infested London, to the tiny village of Eyam (pronounced EEM), Derbyshire. It brought Black Death within its folds. In less than a year, 259 of Eyam’s estimated 350 villagers were dead. In the middle of their suffering, convinced by their rector that it was God’s will for them to endure the scourge alone, the villagers made a covenant to quarantine themselves inside their own boundaries. This heroic gesture prevented the “plague seeds” from spreading to neighboring villages and saved countless English lives while at the same time sealing a horrific fate for those within. These somber facts form the foundation for Geraldine Brooks’ 2001 debut novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, her imaginative exploration into what could have gone on inside those brutal borders during that harrowing year of self-confinement.
The story begins with a somber reflection by Anna Frith, who we glean has played a critical role within the year’s drama. The plague is gone from the village; however we are not at the end of the saga, but find ourselves trudging toward a final climax which slowly builds as we read on. Anna stands in the house of the rector, who appears more ghostlike than man, a faint shadow of a former self. We assume we know why he grieves so, but our assumption proves simplistic.
Anna’s chronicle goes back to the beginning; to the arrival of itinerant tailor George Viccars who enters the village in search of housing and work, to the communal excitement over the delivery of the colorful cloth, and to the death that springs forth from Anna’s cottage, taking her small children while mercilessly sparing her. Yet, Anna does not succumb to this calamity, but rather taps into a hidden strength that sustains her even as neighbors and friends begin to fall around her. She is an unlikely heroine–meek, uneducated, poor. Yet resolute in her faith of a loving though unknowable God, she transcends her own suffering to help lead the village through its crucible.
Central to the story is Anna’s complex relationship with Elinor Mompellion, the rector’s wife. Originally hired to work in the rectory after the tragic death of her husband, Anna becomes daughter-like to the selfless Elinor who teaches her how to read and write, recognizing special qualities within Anna that have lain dormant her whole life. Elinor and Anna break the boundaries of class and religion as they care for the sick and dying, even learning herbal remedies that border on heresy in their desperate attempt to alleviate the suffering. Anna’s love for Elinor empowers her as the months drag on, yet at the same time she seethes with jealousy for all that Elinor has, or seemingly has, including her picturesque marriage with the rector, Michael Mompellion. It is Anna’s fervent battle between devotion and resentment that makes her such a compelling and believable protagonist.
Year of Wonders includes spectacular villains–characters who illustrate the truth that plays a part in all human tragedies. When faced with catastrophe, there will always be those who make the choice to walk toward the light, like Anna, while others seemingly plunge headfirst into their own darkness. Anna’s father, an abusive lout prior to the plague’s arrival, transforms into an almost vulture-like character when he becomes the village grave-digger following the death of the rectory’s sexton. He eagerly awaits each new body for what it will bring to him in the form of payment–going so far as to linger outside the cottage doorways of the gravely ill with a shovel and a smirk. It is worth reading the book just to find out about his final payment!
The ending of Year of Wonders is sublime. The plague virtually fades into a distant memory as the drama involving Anna, Elinor, and Michael rushes toward its unforeseen climax. Illicit love, sin, and forgiveness collide in a rapid-fire denouement that leaves you breathless after you turn the final astonishing page. It is a finale that you could never have anticipated–which makes it all the more satisfying!
A Few Words About Geraldine Brooks
I was introduced to Australian-born author Geraldine Brooks in a serendipitous moment at my beloved neighborhood library, the Excelsior branch. People of the Book was sitting in the New section and its beautifully designed cover compelled me to pick it up. Of the hundreds of books that I have read in my lifetime, People of the Book may be my most favorite. Scenes from that masterpiece still visit me in moments of reflection almost three years after reading it. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction and who are also interested in the many ways Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have intersected across centuries of human existence. Ms. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, March, which I plan to read next. In 2011 Ms. Brooks published Caleb’s Crossing which I wrote about in this blog (http://wp.me/p1w9Ey-57). Geraldine Brooks is a master of the historical fiction genre and has created a body of work that one can easily get lost in.