Thursday, July 19, 2007

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

While hiking in rural England in the summer of 1990, Geraldine Brooks stumbled upon a small village that has come to be commemorated as the Plague Village because of what happened there in 1665-1666. She was so deeply touched by what she learned of the events in Eyam during those plague years that a decade later they served as the basis for her first novel, Year of Wonders. Her novel begins with the few known facts about Eyam's plague year and puts a human face on the village whose people made the decision to quarantine themselves for however long it took to protect neighboring villages from spread of the disease that threatened Eyam's very existence.

Central to the story is young Anna Frith, an 18-year old mother of two young sons who has been widowed by the mining accident that took her husband's life. Unable to work the mining claim that had provided a decent living for her family before her husband's sudden death, 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.

Eyam, a village of less than 400 citizens, had only one church and Michael Mompellion, its rector, was depended upon for his moral guidance and leadership. So when he asked his congregation to close the village off, with no one allowed in or out until the plague had run its course, they reluctantly 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.

Year of Wonders is a fascinating look at what happens to this group of people who have 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 and others become filled with doubt and all of the worst aspects of human nature. Some turn to self-flagellation in an attempt to appease what they see as a suddenly wrathful God, some to witch hunts within the village population, and one or two even to devil worship. Soon it is up to Anna, and Michael and Elinor Mompellion to provide the care and comfort that makes it possible for the village to live up to the pledge that it made to protects its neighbors.

Geraldine Brooks fills the Plague Village with very real human beings who, in barely twelve months, display all the best and all the worst that human beings have in their nature. The people she describes in Year of Wonders are no different than the people you might run into the next time that you find yourself in the middle of some natural disaster that temporarily cuts your area off from the rest of the country. Sadly, some things never change.

Rated at: 3.5
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