Geraldine Brooks is an extraordinary writer. Year of Wonders was the selection for my book club. I was vociferous in my opposition. Who really wants to read a novel about bubonic plague? Not me!
Anna Frith is a young widow living with her two small children in a lead-mining village in Derbyshire, England in 1665. Anna works as a housemaid at the local rectory. The pastor and his wife, Michael and Elinor Mompellion are not much older than Anna, but much more educated and genteel. Elinor befriends Anna and teaches her to read.
To supplement her income, Anna takes in a boarder. He is an itinerant tailor come from London. He works for the local tailor during the day, and does more sewing in the evenings. He is the first person in the village to succumb to the plague. Shortly before dying, he commands Anna to “burn it all”, apparently referring to the bolts of cloth and partly finished clothes he is making for the villagers.
Anna cannot stop her neighbors from retrieving the cloth that they have paid for. She does burn the dress that the tailor has made for her. One by one, the villagers sicken and die, beginning with the very young and the elderly. There is no knowledge of how the plague is spread nor how to treat it. (We now know it is spread by fleas that feast on infected rats, and can be treated by modern antibiotics).
One Sunday, Reverend Mompellion delivers a sermon appealing to the villagers to isolate themselves from the surrounding towns to keep the plague from beyond the village. While they reluctantly agree to this the local lord and his family hastily quit the village, firing their servants and leaving the town stranded and demoralized.
As the weeks turn into months and more people keep dying of the plague, the villagers are grief-stricken, weary and superstitious. They turn on one another, and accusations of witchcraft begin. Of course many of them turn to witchcraft in the hope of saving their own lives.
Year of Wonders is based on events in the real-life village of Eyam, commemorated in Derby to this day as the “Plague Village”. Brooks brings her journalistic skills to this tale. She has done extensive research into this sad period in England’s history. This is a moving and effective novel.I highly recommend it!
Published in hardcover-Thorndike Press-2001
Softcover edition-Penguin Books-2002