Sunday, July 3, 2011

Year of Wonders - 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 27

This week, as part of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I'm reading Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. 


The description on the back cover summarizes this historical fiction book well: 

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated mountain village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. 

Through Anna's eyes we follow the story of the plague year, 1666, as her fellow villagers make an extraordinary choice: convinced by a visionary young minister they elect to quarantine themselves within the village boundaries to arrest the spread of the disease.

But as death reaches into every household, faith frays. When villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must confront the deaths of family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of love.  As she struggles to survive, a year of plague becomes instead annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders." 

I began reading this book and didn't want to put it down 38 pages later.  Picked it up again in the evening and reluctantly put it down at 65 pages.  The author writes with great regard for period detail, and uses elegant prose. 

Inspired by the actual remote British village (Eyam) commemorated as Plague Village because of the events that transpired there in 1665-1666, the author tells this story from the perspective of 18-year-old Anna Frith.  Ann was widowed by the mining accident that took her husband's life.

After her husband's sudden death, she is unable to work the mining claim that had provided a decent living for her family.  Instead, Anna is reduced to working as a servant at the village rectory and to taking in a border sent her way by Michael Mompellion, the rector.

Unfortunately for everyone in Eyam, the new cloth that was brought into the village by this traveling London tailor was infected with the "seeds" of the plague that was soon to devastate the village.

The Church in Eyam contains detailed displays and accounts
of when the village went into voluntary quarantine
when "The Plague" was imported in infected cloth from London in 1665.

Eyam, a village of less than 400 citizens, had one church (see picture above) and Michael Mompellion (its rector) was depended upon for his leadership and moral guidance. He asked his congregation to close the village off, with no one allowed in or out until the plague had run its course.

Reluctantly, the villagers agreed that it was the right thing to do. Little did anyone expect that two-thirds of those sitting in the church that day would not be alive one year later.

The Year of Wonders is both a captivating and harrowing account of the bubonic plague, and its effect on a community as well as the people - rich and poor...child and adult...alike.  It's a fascinating look at what happens to a group of people who made the decision to cut themselves off from the rest of the world to await their fate.

As more and more people die the painful death that comes with bubonic plague, some find a strength that they never knew they had while others become filled with doubt and all of the worst aspects of human nature. Eventually, Anna, and Michael and Elinor Mompellion provide the care and comfort that makes it possible for the village to honor the pledge that it made to protect its neighbors.

Geraldine Brooks fills the Eyam/Plague Village with realistic human beings who, in barely twelve months, display all the best and worst that human beings have in their nature. The people she describes in Year of Wonders are no different than the people you might encounter the next time that you find yourself in a natural disaster that temporarily cuts your area off from the rest of the country.

2 comments:

Diana said...

I read this book when it first came out -- it was a very compelling, yet very difficult book for me to read as I had young children. I want to read some of her other books, but they are always checked out when I have a space of time for them. It's a book you can't stop thinking about -- even years later.

chereemoore said...

This sounds like an intriguing story. Adding it to my TBR list.