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Year of Wonders

Book Review - Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

This book is historical fiction based on the experiences of the town of Eyam, a village in Derbyshire which is in north England. In 1665, there was an outbreak of plague in London. A parcel of cloth was delivered from London to a tailor in Eyam, which carried plague fleas. The cloth arrived damp, and was spread out to dry. Within the week, the tailor was dead and the plague had come to Eyam.

Geraldine Brooks remarks in her notes that an author of historical fiction does best when fed on “short rations”. She was intrigued by a comment in the rector’s journal that he was glad for the steadfast help of their maid, who was faithful and loyal. This maid became the protagonist of the story, Anna Frith.

At the beginning of the story, Anna Frith was recently widowed. Anna makes her way by taking in a lodger, by raising sheep, by working as a maid of all work for the rector and his wife. We struggle with her sharing the day to day burdens of life in the seventeenth century. We experience the limitations of an intelligent woman when education for the poor, especially women, was nonexistent. We are shown the beliefs and world views of the common people of a typical English village. We see how people react to a crisis, which brings out both the best and the worst in people.

As the people in the village sicken and die, the people of the town look for answers. When the villagers are overwhelmed with their fear and superstitions, they accuse the local herbalist and midwife and her niece of causing the deaths by being witches and lynch them. This leaves the town without medical care or help for women in their time of confinement. The rector’s wife and Anna help a woman who is struggling with a breech birth, and Anna brings her experience of helping her sheep with birthing lambs and becomes the new de facto midwife. We learn, along with Anna, some herb lore as she and the rector’s wife try to find ways to help nurse the sick.

The new, young and charismatic village rector, William Mompesson, persuaded the villagers to make an unusual and heroic sacrifice to minimize spread of the disease. Rather than flee the plague infested village, possibly saving themselves but probably carrying the plague to other towns and spreading infection throughout northern England; he convinced them to quarantine the town. Knowing that this meant probable death for many of them, the villagers agreed for the sake of the greater good.

Through Anna’s eyes we experience the pain of watching her children sicken and die. As more and more people die, digging graves becomes a constant job. Soon, the church graveyard becomes overwhelmed, and people are told to bury their own dead on their own land. People are concerned that if the dead are not buried in “consecrated ground”, they will not rise on judgment day. The religious beliefs of the people are explored, some of the beliefs of the villages stemming from the previous puritanical regime and some from the current rector but most from the ignorance and superstitions of the common folk.

At one point, we see a trial for theft by the Barmote Court, which usually handles only lead laws. Due to the loss of population in the town, no other court is available when a thief is apprehended. The trial proceedings and punishment of the court are explained. The lead mining laws regarding the establishment of mines and the maintaining of a mine claim are also explored within the confines of the story. Some of these laws surprised me – such as the one that a person could claim a mine on anyone’s land, provided that within 9 weeks he proved the mine was viable. Viability was proved by producing a “dish” of ore from that mine. A “dish” was what a man could carry, which was defined as 65 lbs or 29 kg. From then on, the mine needs to continue to produce for the owner to hold the title. Failure to continue to bring lead from the mine will lead to someone else being able to take over the mine.

By the end of the year, 260 of the 350 initial villagers had died. This village truly sacrificed itself for the sake of the nation.

I highly recommend this story for anyone interested in history, or historical fiction. This is one of the best books I have read this year.

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