Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of March and several other historical novels. But it all started with her first novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, published in 2001.

I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy Year of Wonders because it is about a year filled with disease and tragedy. I’m glad I read it—it’s a beautiful, thought-provoking novel. It is narrated in the first person by Anna Frith, a servant to Michael Mompellion, a rector of a small village in 17th century England. When plague hit the village, Mompellion convinced the villagers to voluntarily quarantine themselves in order to avoid spreading the disease to neighboring villages.

Brooks based this novel on the true story of the village of Eyam, which is known even today as the “plague village.” During a holiday, Brooks, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, came across the village and was so fascinated by its story that she decided to write a novel about it. There really was a rector who convinced the villagers of the need for a quarantine. In one of his letters, this rector mentioned his gratitude for his maid, and from this line, the character of Anna Frith was born.

The novel begins at the end, after the plague has passed, when the rector has lost not only his beloved wife but also his faith in religion. Anna tends to him as best she can, but he barely eats and refuses to leave the house.

The story then goes back to the spring before the plague set in. Anna, a widow with two young sons, accepts a young tailor as a lodger. A bolt of cloth ordered from London, where the plague is raging, brings the disease into the village. The lodger dies, and soon others nearby die as well. Villagers begin pointing the finger at two women healers, accusing them of being witches. When these women are murdered by several villagers, the horror and guilt of this deed lay the groundwork for the quarantine that Mompellion asks the villagers to agree to.

Anna and her employer, Elinor Mompellion, begin to educate themselves about herbs, and serve as the only healers in town. This is just the first of many trials and transformations that Anna goes through in this surprisingly action-packed novel.

Brooks sprinkles the text with archaic phrases and words which add to the historic feel without hindering the overall meaning. I read the novel through without bothering to look up such words as “whisket” (a small basket) and “posset” (spiced milk with ale).

Anna’s voice is spare, honest, and warm, and you will not regret the time you spend with her.

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