The Year of Wonders

Still bogged down in school, taking eight classes at once. (I know, right? It looks like the same thing is going to happen in January. Maybe I need to narrow my areas of interest?) This week I read another entry in my witches, plagues and war in literature class. This one is called The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. I absolutely loved this story. In some ways it reminded of the great Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. The idea for Year of Wonders was sparked by the existence of a village in England where many of the residents came down with the black death. (Plague, which some people say was bubonic plague and others say they are not so sure.) In the real village the residents cut themselves off from the rest of the country in order to keep from spreading the plague, remaining isolated for one year.

The book is from the point of view of Anna, a young working class woman who has struggled to support her small family following the death of her husband in a mining accident. She is delighted when a very pleasant tailor approaches her and asks if he can rent a room. Not only is his money a Godsend but he is terrific with her two boys, bringing laughter into their home again.

But her new happiness turns to ashes when her tenant receives a shipment of cloth from London; cloth that is infected with the black death. He quickly succumbs to his illness, instructing her to burn everything shortly before he dies. Anna wants to follow his instructions but the other villagers descend on her, demanding the clothing that was being made, no matter how far along in the process.

The plague spreads rapidly, turning an ordinary village into a rapidly emptying place of death. Anna has been working for the village rector, Michael Mompellion, and his wife Elinor, helping keep house and moonlighting at the local nobility's home. She adores her mistress, partly because Elinor treats her as a human being, not a creature barely one level above livestock, as the upper crust does. Elinor has also taught Anna to read, opening her world tremendously.

So when the village loses their midwife Anna reluctant allows Elinor to talk her into delivering the next infant. Anna is terrified when she discovers the baby is breech, but uses her experience birthing lambs, breathing a sigh of relief when mother and baby both come through in good health. As time goes by and more people die she and Elinor start learning more about herbs and ancient methods of healing. But as the village population continues to thin everyone who is healthy must take over empty jobs, or leave important tasks undone. It doesn't take long before everyone is exhausted, which, when combined with grief and fear, leads to a breakdown of social mores. After awhile there are behaviors that reminded of Lord of the Flies, albeit with older characters who were much more religious.

I particularly liked Anna's character. She is a smart, strong woman who tries to shield her heart in order to keep going in the absolute worst of times. She is stubborn and cranky, loving and brave, furious and looking for fairness in a fundamentally unfair world. I'm grateful this novel was a core reading choice for my class because otherwise I may never have noticed it. (I think it was published 12 years ago.) I liked it so much that I could read an entire Harry Potter length series about Anna and her character growth.

You can read an excerpt here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is from a familiar source, namely XKCD, my favorite romance, sarcasm, math, and language based comic. This one hits the ball out of the park. Called 20th Century Headlines Rewritten to Get More Clicks, this comic hits all my pet peeves about modern click bait articles. (My philosophy is don't bother reading any article that starts with a number. Or anything billed as “must read.”)