Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks

When the bubonic plague hits in 1666 a small town quarantines itself to prevent the disease from spreading. Anna Frith, a young widow with two small children is renting a room to a tailor, Mr. Viccars, who receives some cloth from London infected by the disease. Mr. Viccars, understanding what has caused his illness, tells Anna to burn all of his belongings, including the clothes he has already constructed for the village members. Anna chooses to let the owners of the clothing make the decision as to whether or not they will destroy their new garments. When the fabric travels throughout the village the illness spreads, knocking out whatever it decides to eliminate.

As the housekeeper of the local rectory Anna befriends the reactors wife, Elinor Mompellion. As Anna and Elinor struggle to care for the dying village they develop an unbreakable friendship. As the year passes the number of dead is astounding and includes both of Anna’s young boys. The responsibility of burying the dead becomes a great burden as the gravedigger dies of heart failure from working so hard. Anna and Elinor witness so many heart wrenching terrors! The local midwife is murdered on charges of witchcraft, a 7 year old girl is left alone to work her father’s iron mine, a village women who has swindled and manipulated her neighbors is thrown into a manure pit and nearly drowns, and Anna’s father causes countless acts of violence and deceit on the village members. When the plague finally slows down and an end is in site Anna’s heart is torn from her again as Elinor is unfairly taken by a brutal injury.

The Rector, Michael, does not deal with Elinor’s death well. He writes 2 letters, one to inform the neighboring villages that the plague has left and the roads may be opened and the other to inform Elinor’s family of her death. After these letters are delivered Michael locks himself away and does not leave his room. Through a momentary lapse of judgment, no doubt caused by multiple years of suffering and pain, Anna finds herself searching for meaning in her life in the arms of Michael, her best friends husband. Only after a short relationship with the Rector does she see him clearly, in all of his faults! Anna runs away from him, horrified by what she has done.

Elizabeth Bradford’s mother is about to have a baby and finds Anna, begging for help in the delivery. As the town midwife was killed early on in the plague years Anna has taken responsibility for delivering the babies in the area. Shortly after Mrs. Bradford’s baby is safely delivered Anna finds Elizabeth attempting to kill the newborn. Unable to witness another unnecessary death Anna saves the baby and leaves for safety.

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks was a fascinating story of a time with little accurate documentation. As we sing the popular rhyme, “Ring around the rosies, pocket full of posies, ashes ashes we all fall down!” few of us are actually thinking about the horrible plague that took an estimated 100,000 lives in London alone. Geraldine Brooks did a fantastic job of painting an image of what life would have been like during the plague. Anna Frith was a magnificent character whose selfless service brought a great deal of comfort and peace to her friends, neighbors and enemy’s.

I was disappointed by the physical relationship between Anna and Michael, viewing it as distracting and unnecessary. It threw off the entire feel of the book and added a very unnecessary edge to the whole scene.  I also found it interesting that Anna left the country and ended up in the Middle East. Talk about a turnaround!

I recommend this book for anyone looking to know and understand the nature of the bubonic plague and the lifestyle lived during the 1600’s. My book group enjoyed discussing the characteristics of strong individuals and their ability to overcome adversity. We also discussed the role Deity plays in our everyday lives and whether or not God inflicts us with trials or saves us from them. We all asked ourselves if we would be like Anna and help others or if we would be like Elizabeth Bradford and flee. As a mother of 4 children I realized I would be tempted to do just about anything to protect my kids!

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