I have never read Geraldine Brooks before but have wanted to, have heard good things about her books, especially People of the Book. I always figured that would be the one I read first, but it hasn’t turned out that way. Brooks’s book Year of Wonders is one of the contemporary historical fiction books on the reading list for my historical fiction MOOC. She will even be attending one of the classes to talk about the book.
I was expecting a lot from this book which might explain why I finished it a bit disappointed. Not that it wasn’t good, I did enjoy it, but I was not wowed by it. Before I explain that further, let me give you a bit of plot summary.
The book is based on the real village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England. In August of 1665 a tailor living in the village received a bundle of cloth from London and was dead of plague a week later. The village made the momentous decision to quarantine themselves so as not to spread the disease to other villages and towns. The infection spread through the village, never leaving its precincts, and by the time it ended 14 months later only 83 of the 350 villagers had survived.
Year of Wonders begins a few weeks before the plague comes to town. The narrator is Anna Frith, the widow of a lead miner and housekeeper to the minister and his wife. Anna married when she was about fifteen to get away from her abusive father. She had two sons with her husband before he was killed in a mining accident. She is still quite young, twenty perhaps.
When a new tailor came to town and needed a place to stay she took him in as a lodger. Just as they were starting to romance each other, he gets the cloth from London with the fleas that have the plague and then the rest of the book is death after death after death.
The village has quarantined itself so no one leaves and no one enters. It becomes a microcosm of what happens during times of extreme crisis. While the minister is preaching fortitude and faith in God, the villagers are stringing up the midwife and herbalist as a witch. Meanwhile the entrepreneurial among them are charging extortion rates for burying the dead, even going so far as to dump one poor soul into his grave before he is dead. While others succumb to superstition and still others go completely insane.
Our narrator is generally in the thick of things. She finds herself elected the new midwife since she has experience birthing lambs from the small flock of sheep she keeps. She also helps an orphan girl extract enough lead from her dead father’s mine so no one can take it away from her. And because the minister’s wife Elinor takes a liking to her, she is also taught how to read. She is an altogether too good to be true sort of woman. This was one of the causes of my disappointment with the book, Anna was not entirely believable, especially with what happens at the end. It boggled my mind.
But that was not the only thing I had a hard time with. Brooks’s style also made me grind my teeth from time to time. She wrote the book in modern English but so we would know it was really supposed to be 1665 – 66, she’d throw out some odd phrasing now and then that was meant to sound old. And then there were certain word choices. She’d use words like “chouse,” “whisket,” and “boose.” I ignored it at first but they started catching me up and bothering me. Okay, I thought, if you are going to toss out old words I am going to check the OED and make sure you chose ones that would really have been in use. While she did pretty well, I did catch her out a few times like with “jussive,” a word not known to be in use until 1846. To my mind you either go all in with the phrasing and the word choice and you get it right, or you don’t do it at all.
But it wasn’t a bad book in spite of all the things that annoyed me. The story moved along at a good clip but would slow down for some introspective moments too and these things were nicely balanced. It was also interesting watching the different ways faith in God changed. For some it grew stronger and stronger, for others God ceased to exist, and for many more there was much confusion and doubt. What really got my attention and made me think how horrible it must have been was this passage:
I had words with the carter over it, but he told me we were lucky to get as good as we got, and I suppose it’s true enough. There are so few people to do the picking. So few people to do anything. And those of us who are left walk around as if we’re half asleep. We are all so tired.
What do you do when suddenly the people you relied on for daily goods and skilled services are gone? Mines went unworked, fields unplowed, crops unplanted. No blacksmith. No one to buy winter hay from to feed your sheep and horse. A bustling village decimated and not a day goes by when someone doesn’t die or become ill. And suddenly a mild cough or fever becomes a thing of terror. Should it turn out to not be the plague, what a relief!
That passage is what saved the book for me. The plague was an end-of-the-world scenario that really happened. Between 1347 – 1351 the plague reduced the population of Europe alone by about one-third. And there were regular and continuous outbreaks. The plague is still with us and people still die of it, though, thanks to modern medicine, not in the numbers they once did.
I am looking forward to what Brooks has to say about the book in my class. If she says anything particularly interesting, I’ll let you know.