Sunday, June 13, 2010
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
by Geraldine Brooks
This story is set in a 17th century British village that is dealing with the black plague. The village at the behest of the pastor decides to quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of disease to towns in the adjacent countryside. The story is based on a true tale from the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, where townspeople actually did decide to segregate themselves and let the plague run its course. The ravages of the bubonic plague provide the back drop for this feminist tale of Anna Firth. She is a young widow with two small children, who comes from a poor abusive family and works in service to the village pastor. She is uneducated but resourceful. The trials of the plague and her growing relationship to the pastor, Michael Millepellion and his wife Elinor provide opportunities for Anna’s development. The author does a good job of firmly setting this novel in 17th century Britain. The language is contemporary to the time and everyday life of the villagers is well portrayed. As the plague takes its’ victims, the plot deals with not only the tragedy of the losses but with the everyday problems of what to do when the blacksmith is dead, the herbalist is dead, etc. Anna becomes the unlikely heroine of this novel as she retains a clear focus on life as death is everywhere around her. As other turn from religion and herbal cures to witch hunting and sorcery she makes life affirming choices in the face of almost unbelievable circumstances. The characters are multi dimensional. Anna makes good choices and bad. Anna’s father, a despicable character is given a back story that helps understanding of his life choices. There are hidden complexities – both good and bad - to the pastor and his wife that are slowly revealed.
I think this book is excellent historical fiction. It is an engrossing and believable story of what life would have been like in a plague infected 17th century English village. The author takes a topic that in most hands would be depressing beyond belief and makes it an uplifting story. I liked this book so well that I overlook the last chapter which comes in from Mars or beyond.