Book Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Title: Year of WondersBook Review - Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Author: Geraldine Brooks

Publisher: Penguin Books

Genre: Historical Fiction

First Publication: 2001

Language: English

Major Characters: Anna Frith, Michael Mompellion, Elinor Mompellion

Setting Place: Eyam, Derbyshire, England, 1666

Theme: Community and Convention, Female Sexuality and Friendship, Faith, Suffering, and God’s Will, Science and Superstition, Justice and Judgment

Narrator: First person from Anna’s Point of view

 

Book Summary: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition.

As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders.”

Inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in the rugged hill country of England, Year of Wonders is a richly detailed evocation of a singular moment in history.

 

Book Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is narrated by Anna Frith, a shepherdess who also spent a few hours daily as a servant in the rectory. The rector of the church, Michael Mompellion, convinces the villagers to quarantine themselves within the village so the plague will not spread to nearby towns. A wealthy Earl leaves supplies and food on a large stone at the boundary line. The rector’s wife Elinor works with Anna nursing the sick, and preparing herbal tonics to strengthen people. The villagers turn to superstitions, magic charms, fasting and flagellation, and devil worshiping in the hope that something might stop the spread of the plague. Digging graves is unending work. How can people keep their faith and their sanity when they are suffering such great losses?

The Black Death had been around for hundreds of years–during the Roman Empire and the late Middle Ages—but this is about the outbreak in Restoration England. Charles II and the court removed themselves to the countryside, and this village decided to quarantine itself.

“God warns us not to love any earthly thing above Himself, and yet He sets in a mother’s heart such a fierce passion for her babes that I do not comprehend how He can test us so.”

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks opens in “Leaf-Fall, 1666”, after the worst of the Plague in their village, with Anna attending to the grief-stricken Reverend Mompellion. They are among the survivors who are struggling to contemplate a future after so many tragedies. It’s been a village of farmers and lead miners, and few are left to tend to anything.

But Anna is young, and in spite of everything (and believe me, there is a LOT of everything), she does notice new life. A walnut shell has cracked and sprouted right in the middle of the dirt road and is probably going to block the way–yet nobody’s pulled it out.

Then we’re plunged backward into “Spring, 1665”, with Anna (wife and mother), beginning to deal with the Black Death, and the villagers deciding to close the gates following Reverend Mompellion’s advice. They worked out a system of exchanging goods so that they weren’t entirely without support, but nobody could visit family or friends.

“Despair is a cavern beneath our feet and we teeter on its very brink.”

Miserable time, gruesome descriptions, dreadful events, horrifying circumstances with no relief. Witches are accused and dealt with, corpses pile up and stink, filth is everywhere. It’s grisly, and men were often brutal to women and children even during the good times.

There’s a lot of praying – church is held outdoors in the warm weather, when the sickness spreads more—but the church loses a lot of believers, and not all to Death.

Anna learns how to brew potions and salves which help nourish sufferers and relieve some pain. For herself, she resorts briefly to a bit of poppy resin “stirring in a half cup of heather-scented honey to mask the bitterness” to enjoy a dream-filled night and “poppy-induced serenity” in the morning.

“It is a great thing to be young and to live without pain. And yet it is a blessing few of us count until we lose it.”

I think Brooks’ genius comes from her ability to isolate. She chooses a sweeping historical event and then uses it as a backdrop, telling the story through marginal and seemingly insignificant characters. For instance, in March, we experience the Civil War through the eyes of the father from Little Women and in Year of Wonders she shows us how it might have been to experience life in the 17th Century and the horrors of the Black Death through a singular and courageous servant woman in a remote village in Derbyshire, England.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks gets its title from John Dryden’s poem “Annus Mirabilis, The Year of Wonders, 1666” in the epigraph. It was the year when the black death ravaged England, and the Great Fire destroyed parts of London. Geraldine Brooks brings us to the small village of Eyam, Derbyshire where bolts of cloth from London, infested with fleas, were delivered to the tailor. He was the first villager who succumbed to the plague with many more following.


 

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