Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
(Viking, $24.95, PG) ISBN 0-670-91021-X
In the spring of 1665, the inhabitants of a small village in central England made a remarkable decision. Plague had broken out in their community, arrived from London in a bolt of cloth, and had quickly spread through the village. The charismatic rector, here named Michael Mompellion, challenged the townsfolk to quarantine themselves inside the village to prevent the spread of plague. It was their duty to god and humanity, he urged. And so, knowing that many would likely die, the village sealed itself off from the outside world. Nobody was allowed to enter or leave. Food was left at a marked stone on the outskirts of the village.

Year of Wonders is a fascinating glimpse into the psyche and customs of a poor village facing a devastating loss. The story is told through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young widow. Anna has already lost her lead-mining husband to a cave-in and is struggling to provide for her two small sons when George Viccars, a tailor, knocks at her door, looking for a place to board. Anna is pleased to offer him space in return for some badly-needed money. Anna and George become friends, and he is kind to her sons. Eventually he proposes marriage. As Anna ponders her decision, the fateful cloth shipment arrives from London.

There is no saving George, who recognizes the symptoms and begs Anna to “burn it all” before dying in agony. Soon others are sick and the truth must be faced. Plague has come to the village. Mompellion urges the people to act selflessly. They reluctantly agree, with the exception of the local gentry, who cast out their servants and flee.

The villagers may be united in their decision, but they are not united against the plague. A rich cross-section of humanity is portrayed here, from rigid Puritans to a local healer accused of witchcraft, to those who would turn the suffering of others into personal profit, and even those who are driven to madness by the events of the next year.

Anna finds a friend in Elinor Mompellion, the beautiful, ethereal wife of Michael, a woman whom Anna likens to an angel, and who furthers Anna’s interest in the healing arts. Elinor’s goodness hides a terrible secret, one that places her firmly among the mortals. And it’s the triangle of Elinor, Michael, and Anna that binds the book together. As the events of the next year play out, Anna is the one who grows and changes the most. The strength she finds within herself will carry her through a shocking revelation near the end and allow her to build a new life of her own choosing

Geraldine Brooks’ prose has a lovely flow to it, including just enough 17th-century references and terminology to make it feel authentic without getting in the way of the reading experience. Anna’s grief and agony as she watches her two little boys die, while she herself remains healthy, is portrayed in crystalline terms. And the author’s choice of a first-person narrative makes the events of the next year even more vivid, as we see them with the same shock and amazement as Anna does.

Year of Wonders brings to life the true horror of the plague in other, more graphic ways. Brooks doesn’t stint in her descriptions of the plague’s progression, nor of the victims’ condition as they sicken and die. Herbal cures, superstitious nonsense, and prayer are the only weapons, and they are all largely ineffective. Anna dabbles in opium in an effort to escape her pain, but in the end, God chooses who lives and who dies - or perhaps it’s just fate. And as Michael Mompellion is to discover, faith proclaimed the loudest is not always the deepest-rooted.

For an unforgettable look into a year that changed the course of world history, Year of Wonders is not to be missed. Anna Frith, with her determination to simply go on, embodies some of the best in all of us.

--Cathy Sova

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