There's a book we just have to tell you about. It follows the events in a small town in the countryside that's been struck by a brutal pandemic that upends the social order and turns neighbor against neighbor. In the aftermath, the survivors band together and struggle to survive.
No, we're not talking about the latest spinoff of The Walking Dead. We're talking about Year of Wonders, a novel that explores a bizarre but true story about the Black Plague.
In 1665, the plague spread from London to a small village called Eyam. Unlike most people in other places, who skipped town at the first sign of the disease, the villagers of Eyam stayed put and dealt with it in an attempt to prevent the plague from reaching other villages. Based on this true story, Year of Wonders creates a semi-fictionalized narrative to let us experience history firsthand.
In the novel, we follow Anna Frith, a recently widowed mother of two who's struggling not just with the plague but also with her sense of identity. As Eyam is torn apart by the pandemic, Anna is forced to step up to the plate and dedicate her life to helping others. Whether she's concocting herbal remedies with her bestie, Elinor Mompellion, or delivering newborns better than Michael Jordan plays basketball, Anna discovers that she's capable of a lot more than her society expects from her.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Anna experiences immense suffering when death touches her family. She's mistreated by men who believe it's their right to control women. She witnesses lifelong neighbors go certifiably insane. Hey, it's not for nothing that people compare this novel to zombie fiction. Though these experiences shake Anna to her core, she ultimately emerges at the other end a better person.
This tale is the first novel from Geraldine Brooks, an acclaimed journalist who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 2005 novel, March. In many ways, Year of Wonders sets the tone for the novels that would follow in Brooks' career, which bring historical fiction and social commentary together in delicious packages.
So, yeah—it might not feature any brain eating, but Year of Wonders sure packs a mean punch.
The main characters of Year of Wonders often act like modern people who traveled back in time to 1600s England. Anna, for example, casually dismisses religious superstition in a way that seems out of place in this pre-Enlightenment society. Anys, on the other hand, goes even further: she's the embodiment of a 1960s hippie, 300 years before hippies came into existence.
This little bit of disconnect with the time period actually works out great for us readers. Why, you might ask? Because it helps us see how much our perspectives on social issues have changed over time.
This change is most pronounced when it comes to the issue of women's rights. Whether we're talking about marriage as a property arrangement, the rampant repression of sexuality, or overbearing religious principles keeping women subjugated, this novel shows how women weren't given a fair shake for...well, most of world history.
So how does Anna Frith react to this sort of oppression? Does she follow orders and stay in her place? Does she violently rise up against unfair social structures? Does she just say "meh" and move to an all-women commune?
The real answer lies somewhere in between. Through her journey, Anna shows us that women don't have to choose between being feminine and feminist. To say otherwise would just further perpetuate sexism. Ultimately, Anna chooses a path that is unique to herself, one that extremists on both ends would probably scoff at.
We can apply this thinking to practically anything. Hey, you just have to follow your heart, right? Just be sure to learn that lesson before a global pandemic hits your hometown. Take it from us.
The Black Death that swept Continental Europe and England in the fourteenth century was not the only appearance of the plague in history. In 1666, a new outbreak devastated the mountain village of Eyam, northwest of London. Geraldine Brooks uses this real-life event as the catalyst for Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, a historical novel that may remind readers not only of Albert Camus’ The Plague, but also of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The plague that appears mysteriously in central England touches first a boarder at the home of Anna Frith, servant and friend of Elinor Mompellion. As it spreads, Anna, Elinor, and Elinor’s husband Michael, rector in the village, try to rally their neighbors to deal with the tragedy sensibly, praying to God but taking practical precautions such as burning infected clothing and supplies. Unfortunately, their efforts meet with mixed success, as others in the village are prone to believing that the devil’s curse is upon them. Some turn to the occult for answers; others simply succumb to the ravages of the disease. The Mompellions and Anna, first seen as pillars of strength, are soon objects of vilification and hatred. Then, as mysteriously as it appears, the plague runs its course, but not before it decimates the population and forever changes the lives of the principal protagonists.
Year of Wonders is a cross between a Victorian romance and a modern feminist tale. Anna, the novelist’s narrator, is a strong woman who demonstrates repeatedly that she can make her way in the world without men. The Mompellions appear to be the perfect couple, but both have dark secrets that plague their souls as fiercely as the bacillus virus does the bodies of other villagers. The novel’s supporting cast are vividly drawn, and the surprise ending seems neither forced nor implausible. Exceptionally well researched and deftly constructed, Year of Wonders is a work that deserves serious attention.