Friday, June 15, 2007

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks--a review


I was fascinated to find that the historical novel Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, was inspired by the true story of the Derbyshire town of Eyams, during the “plague year” of 1665-6. Infected by a bolt of cotton brought from London, the town quarantined itself for the better part of a year, and though they suffered the loss of somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of their population, their sacrifice saved the surrounding towns and villages from decimation.

Geraldine Brooks was inspired by this true story to imagine life in the quarantined village over the plague year. And though a novel about the plague sounds inevitably depressing, somehow, as Brooks tells it, it’s not. Yes, there’s death and disease aplenty, but the story transcends this and becomes about the best and worst of human nature in the face of tragedy.

Eighteen-year-old Anna Frith is no stranger to tragedy before the plague strikes, having been abused by her father, and widowed and left with two young sons at seventeen. But as servant to the town’s minister, the charismatic Michael Mompellion, and his gentle wife Elinor, Anna has found people who value her, and Elinor even teaches her to read and write, something rare in a woman of Anna’s station.

Anna’s boarder, an itinerant tailor, brings plague to the village in a bolt of infected cloth. As disease begins to spread, the minister asks the people for an extraordinary act of sacrifice—instead of people running away, and possibly infecting surrounding towns, he wants the entire village to seal itself off in quarantine until the plague passes.

The town agrees to the quarantine, and the plague ravages the population. This brings out many of the townspeople’s baser instincts, and superstition, hatred, jealousy and violence begin to reign. But for some people, including Anna, the tragedy brings out strengths they never knew they possessed. And for Anna, it also gives her new skills, with which she ultimately reimagines her life.

Brooks evokes 17th century life, it’s customs and mores, with a skilled hand. Details about sheepfarming, lead mining, and herbalism feel well-researched, and add much to the atmosphere of the story. I also think Brooks’s characters are nuanced and powerfuly drawn. Anna is a well-realized character, and her journey is compelling, but there are times when her introspection, her thoughts about religion and human nature, seem beyond the ken of a 17th century woman.

I wanted Brooks to give me a little more on the decision about the quarantine. The minister, Mompellion, sways the villagers with an eloquent and compelling sermon, but once he has spoken, the townspeople decide to follow his plan fairly quickly, and the reader is not privy to anyone’s discussions, their arguments for and against, such a drastic move.

Reading this made me want to read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, published in 1722, to get another account of life during this horrific epidemic.


Plague Fun Facts

- The “Great Plague” was a huge outbreak of what is believed to be bubonic plague in England in 1665-1666. This outbreak was far smaller than the “Black Death”, which broke out in Europe between 1347 and 1353, and is thought to have killed 1/3 to 2/3 of Europe’s population. This plague outbreak was called “great” because it was one of the last big outbreaks in Europe.

- There were three major epidemics - in the 6th, 14th, and 17th centuries.
The death toll was 137 million victims.

- The outbreak in England in 1665-1666 was thought to have been brought to Britain by Dutch trading ships carrying bales of cotton from Amsterdam.

- Records state that deaths in London crept up to 1000 persons per week, then 2000 persons per week and, by September 1665, to 7000 persons per week. By late autumn, the death toll began to slow until, in February 1666, it was considered safe enough for the King and his entourage to return to the city. But by this time, trade with the European continent had spread this outbreak of plague to France, where it died out the following winter.

- The Great Fire of London seems to have helped stop the epidemic. After the fire, thatched roofs (which, besides being a fire hazard, also provided an ideal place for rats to live) were forbidden within the city, and remain forbidden under modern codes.

- Humans usually get bubonic plague from being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an infected animal. Millions of people in Europe died from plague in the Middle Ages, when human homes and places of work were inhabited by flea-infested rats. Today, modern antibiotics are effective against plague, but if an infected person is not treated promptly, the disease is likely to cause illness or death.

- Bubonic plague causes fever and a painful swelling of the lymph glands called buboes, which is how it gets its name. The disease also causes spots on the skin that are red at first and then turn black.

- The disease struck and killed people with terrible speed. The time from infection to death was always less than one week—sometimes even just one day. The Italian writer Boccaccio said its victims often "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise."

- The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 was more deadly than bubonic plague—it killed 25 million people in the course of one year.

31 comments:

Lesley said...

I've got this one in the TBR stacks - it sounds quite interesting.

Literary Feline said...

This one does sound interesting. I will have to add it to my wishlist. Thanks for the review! I didn't realize so many people died in that epidemic. Wow.

Gentle Reader said...

lesley--it's short, too, so it's not a big commitment :) And I'm contemplating joining your challenge--looks like a fun one!

literary feline--the sheer numbers of deaths are amazing, aren't they? It's one of many reasons not to romanticize the past...thank goodness for antibiotics :)

Stephanie said...

Hmmmm...I didn't know there were any "Fun Facts" about the plague!

I do have this book. One of these days maybe I'll get to it!

Gentle Reader said...

stephanie--okay, maybe not "fun" facts. Maybe "disgusting" facts would have been better... :)

Sam Houston said...

The premise of a town quarantining itself reminds me of "The Last Town on Earth" which is set in the Pacific Northwest during the 1917 flu epidemic. That town wasn't very successful because people managed to sneak out to the next town when they ran short of booze and friendly women. Thanks for the heads up on this one. I'm looking...

liz said...

what did you think of the end? I loved the book except for the ending. I also loved March, Brooks' more recent book.

Robin said...

I couldn't put it down when I read this book! Your
facts about the plague are fascinating.

Marg said...

I really enjoyed this book when I read it...except for the very end....what was that about???

Gentle Reader said...

sam--that story sounds interesting, too. And it makes me laugh that the town wasn't successful because they needed more booze and women--hee hee!

robin--thanks, and I think the plague is fascinating, in a horrible way, so I'll probably try to read Daniel Defoe's book about it, too...

Gentle Reader said...

liz and marg-- (SPOILER ALERT) Okay, the ending was pretty lame, but I didn't want to be a spoiler and write specifically about it in my little review. What was that about? It came out of nowhere. Since Brooks seems to have done her research pretty well, I wondered what was going on in the rest of the world at the time, and whether there were records of European women entering the Muslim world at that time...anyway, it seemed like pure fantasy compared to the rest of the book, and it didn't work for me.

Dewey said...

We actually have a few plague cases every year in my state from fleas! Fortunately, with today's treatments, people get better and it doesn't spread.

Brooks is one of my favorite writers, and I really enjoyed this book, but I liked March even better.

I thought the people responded so passively (there were a few exception) because in those times, the minister really was almost considered the voice of God. He was assumed to have prayed and found what God wanted them to do. I was a bit disappointed by the ending though, as it seemed implausible.

Maggie said...

I loved this one! Oh, your "Plague Fun Facts" title made me giggle nervously. :)

Bookfool said...

What a terrific, informative post and a great review. I'll have to add this one to the wish list. I've got the Daniel Dafoe book buried around here, somewhere. Someday, I'm going to get all these piles organized.

Eva said...

I love your fun facts-thanks for sharing!

bookmooch is super fun. It's so crazy, how I can just look up a book, and then magically have it sent to me for free. :) It's great, although addicting!

tanabata said...

The facts were really interesting- thanks for posting them. I've had this book in my TBR stacks for ages. I really should try to work it in one of these days/years..

Gentle Reader said...

dewey--how scary about the occasional plague cases near you, though I've read that if you get antibiotics quickly enough, it's okay. But yikes! And yes, I really hadn't taken into account how much power the minister wielded at that time--and it was also interesting that, according to Brooks, the village had gone from Puritan rule back to Church of England, so there had been a religious change recently, which might have affected things, too. And the implausible ending bugged me too...

Gentle Reader said...

maggie--I shouldn't be so flip about plague and pestilence, because even though we apparently have a handle on this particular version, I'm sure if a new big flu epidemic hits, I won't be laughing!

bookfool--well, I'm going to try to find the Defoe, and if you read it, too, we'll compare notes. My piles are taking over my house, by the way...

eva--I love Bookmooch, too--it's such a great idea--wish I had thought of it :)

tanabata--it's a fast read, and I really enjoyed it for its atmosphere. But I know how those TBR piles are...I feel like I really need to reorganize and reprioritize my lists, because I'm getting overwhelmed :)

iliana said...

The Plauge fun facts was great. I thought this book was great too except for the ending. Ugh. Where did that come from. I would like to read something else by her though.

Gentle Reader said...

iliana--I hear ya about the ending--ugh. Out of left field, and so unbelievable. I have "March" sitting on my pile near the bed, and it's another slim volume, so I'm going to try to get to it some time soon :)

Dewey said...

I see something happening over and over in books, especially books written by people who are, like me, feminists. They want to show strong, independent, smart women characters. And that's a great thing. In a book about modern times. But if they're writing historical novels, they often show the women characters as SO strong and independent that they are able to overcome the unmovable obstacles that anyone of their gender would have encountered. And I consider that a problem for two reasons. First, it implies that women who were subservient in the 1600s or whatever just didn't have the guts to take the reins of their own lives. Which is unfair to those women, because they saw NOTHING in their entire experience that would even hint to them that they might be allowed to be independent. And second, I can't stand historical inaccuracies. A historical novel with modern worldviews applied to it is not a historical novel at all.

Gentle Reader said...

dewey--you've hit the nail on the head. This is the big problem with this book. I found much of it well-researched and consistent with the 17th century setting, but the main character just doesn't seem to fit with the times. She's too modern in her sensibilities, probably because the writer wanted her to be "strong". And the ending of the book proves this--it seems very unlikely that this rural woman in the 1660s would strike out on her own like this and head for a completely new culture, even if she has been radically changed by her experience during the plague.

Bookfool said...

Oh, goodness, what an interesting conversation you and Dewey are having! I almost mentioned that I'd read there are occasional cases of bubonic plague in . . . is it New Mexico and Arizona? Somewhere in the West.

The "strong female heroine" concept is, I agree, occasionally carried too far in historical fiction. I have a feeling publishers think the truth is a little too unpalatable to today's female readers and that's probably somewhat accurate to wimps like me. :)

Gentle Reader said...

bookfool--this is the great thing about blogging, isn't it? All the wonderful conversations we have! I haven't read enough historical fiction to know if it's a trend, but it sure seems like it with this book--the ending felt tacked on with "gotta have a strong female heroine" in mind.

Lotus Reads said...

This was one of favorite books from 2-3 years ago...I read it while recuperating from the flu, so it impacted me even more! lol

Love your review and all the facts you included....makes for an excellent quick reference.

Gentle Reader said...

lotus--thanks! You were brave to read this with the flu, LOL. I'm glad I read this while healthy--I'm sure I would have imagined imminent death if I'd read it with even a sniffle :)

Bellezza said...

This was a great book! I enjoyed it much, much more than her Pulitzer Prize winner: March. In fact, I didn't even finish March which is something I rarely do. The plague book made me feel, and still does if I think about it long enough, that I may contact it myself. It was so real!

Gentle Reader said...

bellezza--I felt this book had great description! I was attracted to this more than to March, and March has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. But maybe I'll give it a try at some point...

Joy said...

Hi Gentle Reader! I have this planned for the TBR Challenge. I'm glad you liked it and that it's not a big commitment! :)

Gentle Reader said...

joy--it's a really quick read, but in a good way! Hope you enjoy it :)

Anonymous said...

Why in the world would you call the plague facts "FUN" facts... I mean wtf is so fun about millions of people dying? Not very fun..