This gripping historical novel is based on the true story of Eyam, the “Plague Village,” in the rugged mountain spine of England. In 1666, a tainted bolt of cloth from London carries bubonic infection to this isolated settlement of shepherds and lead miners. A visionary young preacher convinces the villagers to seal themselves off in a deadly quarantine to prevent the spread of disease. The story is told through the eyes of eighteen-year-old Anna Frith, the vicar’s maid, as she confronts the loss of her family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of a dangerous and illicit love. As the death toll rises and people turn from prayers and herbal cures to sorcery and murderous witch-hunting, Anna emerges as an unlikely and courageous heroine in the village’s desperate fight to save itself.
For those that enjoy historical fiction, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks, comes highly recommended. The epic tale poignantly sets forth the courage one woman holds during a year of insurmountable trauma caused by the devastation of the bubonic plague. The basis of the story is ripped from the pages of Britain’s dark history, specifically focusing on the true events which unfolded in the village of Eyam, Derbyshire, England.
Our heroine Anna Frith, made widow by a mine explosion prior to the plague, guides the readers through the year of devastation (between 1665 and 1666) as plague cuts down young and old alike in her village. As history notes, at the guidance of their parish head and upon majority vote, the inhabitants of the village made the steadfast decision to quarantine themselves from the world that surrounds them until the seed of the plague was no more within their midst. These brave folk cut ties with the villages around them, and vowed to not spread the pestilence.
The horror and hope described by Anna tries the modern mind. For those of us living so far removed from such times, to even begin to contemplate, or emotionally conceive, the courage it took these people to lock themselves away from the world is staggering. Yet, Brooks uses her mastery of weaving human emotion into something tangible that her work leaves the reader feeling as hopeless as those not felled by the plague. Death and despair are the bedfellows of this sad community, with the plague shattering the dreams of some, yet shining the light of hope and strength onto others. Brooks depicts that depravity that can befall us all during times of misery, and leaves us questioning if humanity really would survive another outbreak, such as the plague, that befell the poor villagers of Eyam.
It is with great conviction for the tale that Brooks tells, that I am happy to give Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague a 5 out of 5 on the Pure Textuality scale. I highly recommend the read if you are looking for something with serious content, or, a piece for your local book club to discuss (there is a great section in the back of the book with Discussion Questions).