‘Year of Wonders’ – a timely story from a 350 year old reality

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • Year of WondersYear of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Press, 2001)
  • In 40 words or less: Based on Eyam, England which cut itself off from the world in the hope of saving its people from the plague.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: England
  • Time: 1665
  • Read this book if individual stories bring you a new  understanding of history.

Geraldine Brooks’ ‘Year of Wonders’ has long been one of my favorite novels. It is particularly appropriate that I am finishing this review after almost a week of hunkering down due to winter storm Jonas. Her debut novel, written in 2001, is based on the actual English village of Eyam which in 1665 chose total isolation from neighboring villages in the hope of mitigating bubonic plague. The outbreak was in the early days of the Protestant Reformation, a time of religious and social friction. Anna Firth was created by Brooks to tell the community’s story.

Anna is a still a teenager when her husband dies mining lead. Left with two small children, she works in the rectory for Reverend Mompellion and his wife, Elinor. To augment her wages, Anna takes in a tailor who has come to town.  He becomes the first victim of the plague, likely infected from fleas in cloth he received. Fortunate to have been taught to read, Anna is hungry for knowledge and Elinor sees in her a kindred spirit. While Reverend Mompellion sees to the religious needs of many in the community, Elinor and Anna work together to keep the community fed and restore their health.

In a community barely subsisting, the toll of isolation and deprivation is high. Through Anna’s eyes the reader sees the best and the worst behaviors. Beyond the stark religious differences within the Protestants, there is a household of women herbalists and healers who some consider witches. These women are increasingly called upon to help those who have fallen ill from a variety of ailments. They, however, are often not treated with like kindness. The harshness of daily life and lengths people go to survive can be chilling.

Over the course of the year, Brook peels back the layers of life – birth and death, cruelty and kindness, love and hatred. It is astonishing how many aspects of the book ring true 350 years later. This is a book to read, re-read and share.

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