Monday, September 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

 My historical fiction book group met virtually this weekend. The book we read was Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks is a wonderful writer. I loved The Secret Chord. I was a bit hesitant to read another plague book just now. To Calais, In Ordinary Times by James Meek was such an extraordinary read that I thought, “That’s enough plague.”

However, I dove in and was captivated from the start. Anna Frith is a young widow with two very young children living in a small English mining village in 1666. Her husband died in a mining accident. Her father is a violent drunk. She has to fend for herself. She keeps sheep and works as a housemaid for the Rector and his wife, and also helps serve at the manor of the local gentry, the Bradfords. The Rector’s wife, Elinor, is a saint of a woman, who sees Anna’s intelligence and teaches her to read and allows her to dream.

Everything changes when a traveling tailor comes to the village and boards at Anna’s house. He brings light and laughter into the cottage, as well as hope of a new love. But before they can act on their attraction, he receives a shipment of cloth from London and sets to work making clothes. Soon, he falls ill with the plague. Although his dying plea to Anna is that she “burn everything,” it is impossible for her to carry through. People want the bits and pieces of clothing they paid for. Before long, plague is racing through the town.

The rector, Michael Mompellion, preaches to the village about sacrificial love. He says they should quarantine rather than flee, which would carry the plague far beyond the village. His flock agrees, except for the lord and his family who think themselves too important to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Over the next year, half of the town dies of the plague, directly or indirectly. Anna is witness to all the humanity and inhumanity of the people she has known all her life. She draws closer to Elinor as together they try to bring comfort and healing to the dying, while Michael tends to the practical and spiritual needs of his charges. But things keep going from bad to worse.

Anna is an inspiring character: clear-eyed, generous, compassionate, and imperfect. Because of Anna, the book is hopeful rather than depressing. Only the epilogue didn’t quite fit. It did wrap things up neatly for Anna, but seemed far-fetched after the gritty realism of her life in her village. However, despite my dissatisfaction with the epilogue, I would recommend Year of Wonders. 

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