Reviewed by Troy Reed
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks is set in seventeenth century England during the time of the plague. The novel is based on the real village of Eyam, Derbyshire, in the Pennine Mountains. Members of the small village begin dying one by one as the plague seeps into their town in the year 1666. The living face a difficult choice that their survival depends upon- leave the village and find refuge in towns that the plague has not yet hit or stay behind and quarantine themselves to protect other innocent people? The young, charismatic town vicar, Michael Mompellion, convinces the villagers that they have a better chance of survival if the village seals itself off from the rest of the world. A few decide to risk it and leave, but the majority of the people prepare to stay in the village and combat the plague head-on.
The story is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Anna Firth, a widow with two young sons. Anna works as a maid for the vicar and his wife, Elinor. Anna and Elinor develop a close friendship, and Elinor teaches Anna to read. The vicar, his wife, and Anna come to the aid of those infected with the plague and care for them as best they can with herbal medicines and words of comfort. At the same time Anna is caring for others, she must also deal with the tragic loss of her two sons as they succumb to the disease. As the plague begins to decimate the population, many people turn against the vicar and believe that his advice was wrong. The villagers begin to mistrust friends and neighbors and start to turn against each other in their confinement. Some let their superstitions get the best of them and believe that there are witches among them that are responsible for the suffering.
The characters in this novel are well-developed. Brooks is able to accurately portray the range of emotions that people would exhibit in such a difficult time when faced with disease, death, and dwindling supplies. Her portrayal of how some members of the village are driven to madness and desperate measures are extremely accurate and convincing. Readers will identify with Anna as she copes with the loss of her children and with the suffering of the neighbors that she helps. Anna reacts to her situation in a believable way, by throwing herself into her work, hoping that soon the plague will pass and life will resume once more. Geraldine Brooks is a superb storyteller that skillfully portrays this tale of everyday people learning how to cope during an extraordinary time in history.