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

22 comments:

  1. I read this several years ago and was sorely disappointed in it. I released it as a BookCrossing book and everyone else loved it!

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  2. Jenclair, I much prefer her second novel, March and I can understand why you didn't like this one. I liked the first half of it much more than I like the second part and I had to really think about what numeric rating it deserved from me.

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  3. I enjoyed it, but more for the setting than anything. I was disappointed in the ending, which seemed less than believable. But I liked the main character. Thanks for the review!

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  4. We seem to pretty much agree, Gentle Reader, about that ending.

    I was drawn to the novel based mostly on the subject matter. I'm always intrigued by what happens to a group of people who are forced to share company with no one but themselves for extended periods of time. I wanted to see how those dynamics would work out in this case...and I really enjoyed March and figured that the author would have some insights into that kind of thing.

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  5. The idea of the group dynamic, and the concept of that kind of self-sacrifice really intrigued me, too. I have March on my shelf, and haven't started it, but most people I know have really enjoyed it.

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  6. Oh, I love this book! I've read it twice now. The ending is a bit implausible, but otherwise, it's nearly perfect, as far as what I want from a book.

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  7. Gentle Reader, if you love Little Women you will almost certainly love March.

    Little Women is finally in my TBR stack since I received a beautiful Library of America copy in the mail. I'm looking forward to it.

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  8. It's a good book, Dewey, and the writing is beautiful and fits the period nicely. I was hoping for a "great" book, however, and that's probably why I was somewhat disappointed in it.

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  9. Thanks for this review! I've seen this book around for years but I've never read it for some reason. Perhaps, now I should. But I'm thinking that I'll start with March first, since everyone seemed to like that one more.

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  10. They are very different novels, J.S., and you can't go too wrong in either case. Let me know what you think of them when they come up to the top of the stack out your way.

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  11. Like others I loved this book until I got to the ending and thought...what the heck was up with that!

    March is an excellent read!

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  12. Marge, to me the ending reads to me as if it weren't given as much thought as the rest of the book...it seems sort of tacked on at the end just to wrap things up. And that's a shame because it detracts from the impression given by the rest of the book.

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  13. I've read both books and, like Dewey, loved this one. Part of what I liked was learning about something historical I didn't know, the little town which took on that challenge. March seemed to me less memorable, more like something I have no particular desire to read again, even though I was Marmee in a 2-hour play and have always been partial to the family in Little Women.

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  14. That's what drew me to the book, also, Bonnie, and I did learn a lot from it. She's a fine writer and I'm looking forward to more from her.

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  15. I liked this book so much that I bought "March". I hope to get to it in the next few months. Thanks for your review. I enjoyed remembering this book.

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  16. Thanks for your comment, Framed...and I hope that you enjoy March. I do think that you will.

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  17. Agree with othrs' comments about the ending - it ruined it for me.

    Seemed like a "wish fulfilment" exercise to me and completely at odds with the circumstances and the time. Pure fantasy. The rest ofit was so good, and seemingly well researched.

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  18. I've not seen any "professional" reviews of the book that I recall, Sally. I wonder if they felt the same about the ending.

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  19. Oh, I loved both, and liked March even better than this one! But I read this one before March, and I bet that made the difference. I may have been disappointed if I had read March first and then approached this one with expectations based on reading that.

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  20. I think you might be onto something there, Dewey. I liked March so much that I had high expectations for this one. That probably set me up for disappointment.

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  21. who decide the bradford family and Anna's father have failings during the plague that only show that they are fully human?
    your help is appreciated!

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