Geraldine Brooks is a 21st Century phenomenon in the world of historical fiction. In Year of Wonders, the first of her three novels published in this decade, she tackles the familiar territory of the bubonic plague, adding great emotional depth to the reader’s understanding of its impact and the now-alien setting in which it appeared. This is one of at least four books I’ve read over the years that deal with the plague in England, both fiction and nonfiction, and it’s by far the most insightful and revealing.
Year of Wonders tells the tale of Anna Frith, an 18-year-old mother of two who is widowed when her husband dies accidentally in one of the local lead mines. Hired as a housemaid by the new Anglican pastor, Michael Mompellion and his aristocratic wife, Elinor, who teaches Anna to read and guides her to a more self-confident and sophisticated view of her abilities and the world where she lives. These three are the central figures in the horrific events that unfold when the plague descends on their village. Alone and together, they struggle with often-contradictory thoughts and feelings about faith, love, superstition, and redemption, as the plague strikes down one villager after another, felling whole families virtually overnight, and leaving barely one-third of its 400 inhabitants alive once it finally grinds to a halt.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001) 323 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The very best historical fiction can teach better than any textbook or lecture, and Year of Wonders is a brilliant example of that ability. Read this book, and you’ll gain a new appreciation of both the virtues and the failings of Christianity as practiced in 17th Century England, and you’ll understand the depths of ignorance and superstition that reigned among the overwhelming majority of people living a mere three centuries ago.
The title, Year of Wonders, was translated and borrowed from the Latin annus mirabilis of a John Dryden poem describing the year 1666, the setting of this novel. This was not the time of the Black Death that reduced Europe’s population by a third but a more localized epidemic that took place three centuries later. Brooks grounded her story in the fascinating tale of the historical English village of Eyam, today called the Plague Village.
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