I used to read historical fiction regularly but haven’t really picked up a good period novel in a while. Then my neighborhood launched a book club and this was the first chosen title. I confess I was a little reluctant to pick up Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague because despite all of the hype I’ve never been able to really get into one of Geraldine Brooks’ other books: People of the Book. And it took me a bit to get into this title, too, but the payoffs were well worthwhile.
The novel is based on a real village, Eyam, in Derbyshire, England. In 1665 a flea-infested bundle of cloth was delivered from London to a tailor. The plague quickly took over the village. Rather than further the spread of the disease the village chose to isolate itself from nearby villages: nobody came in or out. Money, soaked in vinegar, which was thought to kill the plague, was placed in a hole in a stone called the Coolstone (you can see the stone still, should you visit Eyam.) A neighboring village would exchange the money for food and other supplies for the villagers. Church records still exist which list at least some of the dead, and letters from the rector to a mentor still exist as well.
Brooks reaches into the silence beyond the historical records and brings to life a heroine in main character and narrator, Anna Firth. At the beginning of the novel Anna has just lost her husband in a lead mining accident and is raising her two sons, some sheep and a cow entirely on her own. She happily welcomes a tailor in as a lodger. He is the first village casualty of the plague.
The plague quickly begins its angry and impartial spread across the village. People fall in ill in rapid succession, some surviving against all odds and other dying when it seemed they might be saved. Throughout the novel Anna works closely as a servant, and in many ways as a friend, for the rector, Michael Mompellion, and especially his wife Elinor.
As the plague spreads to a point where meeting as a village in the crowded chapel seems too risky for sharing infection the “church” gathers in the woods for Sunday services. It is at one of these services that Mompellion suggests the isolation of the village. Within hours of this pronouncement the wealthy village family evacuates, taking not one servant with them, abandoning their village to the disease and whatever may come of it.
The novel is filled with twists and turns as the village both comes together and turns against itself. Throughout, Anna remains a strong character, caring for the sick, caring for her family, caring for her animals. The denouement and conclusion are best protected from any spoilers but they do not disappoint.
I have officially declared this to be perhaps the best historical novel I have ever read. I absolutely adored Anna, admired her strengths, felt her weaknesses with sympathy.
A side benefit in terms of basic education from a novel came in learning about the lead mining industry. Brooks fails to fully explain all of the rules governing lead mining: the laying in of claims, the barmasters who administers claim ownership and the sale of ore. I learned that the industry existed in Derbyshire into the 1920’s by doing a little Google research.
If there are flaws in the novel they are minor: the limited explanation of lead mining, the speed at which Anna learns to read under the tutelage of Elinor, and a bit of the ending that fell a bit flat for me.
Despite any flaws I highly recommend this book as a way to learn about the plague, small village life, the caste system therein and the sacrifice and indomitable spirit of a people with a common goal. And the prose doesn’t exactly let you down either. There’s a description of Anna sitting by a creek nursing her son that still stays with me.
In summary: Read it. You’ll thank me later.