Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague Year by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks
2001 Penguin Books

I have been watching a lot of reality TV lately; some good, a lot bad. I have found myself drawn to the tales of everyday heroism. Mothers who, in times of crisis, find themselves able to lift trucks off their trapped child or people who perform at-home surgery on family members when the doctor is unavailable. I have found myself wondering could I be such a hero? Its nice to think that if my child was trapped in a burning building I would find the power to kick down the door and rescue him. But would I do the same for my next door neighbor, who is like a second mother to me? What about the neighbor down the street that I am on waving status with?
The YEAR OF WONDERS is the story of a true heroine, who put aside her personal reticence to comfort her neighbors during an outbreak of the plague. Based on a true account of a town that secluded itself from its neighbors when the plague arrives YEAR OF WONDERS details the activities of said town over the course of a year as it deals with the consequences of its voluntary seclusion and the plague.There is more death than I expected, some graphic, most not. There is a surprising amount of romance and 20th century ideals.
I enjoyed this book immensely. In fact, I put it on the "Do NOT Lend" shelf of my personal library. The main character/ narrator Anna Frith is a refreshing heroine. She is not too brash or too subservient. She adapts, as we all do, to the circumstances she is in. Anna develops throughout the story and in the end, is quite a different creature than at the beginning of the book. I appreciated how all of the characters are flawed but within reason. Too many times over the course of the past year I have read bad characters how are bad for no reason or syrupy sweet characters who continue to be naive and trusting though the world shows them different. The characters in YEAR OF WONDERS are real people. Their emotions and reactions change with the situation and the environments and within reason. There was plenty of room in this novel for the author to let the characters become caricatures of real people but she manages to stay within the boundary of real life.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

This gripping historical novel is based on the true story of Eyam, the "Plague Village," tucked in the rugged mountain spine of England. In 1666, when an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to the isolated settlement of shepherds and lead miners, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes the reader follows the story of the plague year, as her fellow villagers make an extraordinary choice: convinced by a visionary young minister they elect to quarantine themselves within the village boundaries to arrest the spread of the disease. As the death toll rises and people turn from prayers and herbal cures to sorcery and murderous witch-hunting, Anna must confront the deaths of family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of illicit love.

Other Reviews:

From Publishers Weekly
Discriminating readers who view the term historical novel with disdain will find that this debut by praised journalist Brooks (Foreign Correspondence) is to conventional work in the genre as a diamond is to a rhinestone. With an intensely observant eye, a rigorous regard for period detail, and assured, elegant prose, Brooks re-creates a year in the life of a remote British village decimated by the bubonic plague. Inspired by the actual town commemorated as Plague Village because of the events that transpired there in 1665-1666, Brooks tells her harrowing story from the perspective of 18-year-old Anna Frith, a widow with two young sons. Anna works as a maid for vicar Michael Mompellion and his gentle, selfless wife, Elinor, who has taught her to read. When bubonic plague arrives in the community, the vicar announces it as a scourge sent by God; obeying his command, the villagers voluntarily seal themselves off from the rest of the world. The vicar behaves nobly as he succors his dwindling flock, and his wife, aided by Anna, uses herbs to alleviate their pain. As deaths mount, however, grief and superstition evoke mob violence against "witches," and cults of self-flagellation and devil worship. With the facility of a prose artist, Brooks unflinchingly describes barbaric 17th-century customs and depicts the fabric of life in a poor rural area. If Anna's existential questions about the role of religion and ethical behavior in a world governed by nature seem a bit too sophisticated for her time, Brooks keeps readers glued through starkly dramatic episodes and a haunting story of flawed, despairing human beings. This poignant and powerful account carries the pulsing beat of a sensitive imagination and the challenge of moral complexity. (Aug. 6)Forecast: Brooks should be a natural on talk shows as she tells of discovering the town of Eyam, in Derbyshire, in 1990, and her research to unearth its remarkable history. With astute marketing, Viking will have a winner here. BOMC, Literary Guild and QPB featured alternates; 8-city author tour; rights sold in England, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden.

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