Friday, April 21, 2006
Year of Wonders - Geraldine Brooks [April/06]
One day while I was browsing the second hand bookstore, I came across this novel by Geraldine Brooks. I had never read a book about the plague that struck London and other areas, so I decided to pick it up. It took her newest novel, March, winning the Pulitizer Prize to attract me to picking this book up and actually reading it.
This novel is not set in London, it is set in a town outside of it. The plague reaches them from a bolt of cloth that was sent to the village from London. The main character in the novel is Anna Frith. When the novel begins, the plague has already struck the village and Anna is standing at the end as a survivor. Not many were so lucky, as we watch her recount the year 1666, we learn that 140 people perished from the plague. This might seem like a large number considering the amount that died elsewhere, but when a town only has a couple hundred people to begin with, this makes a lot of difference. Only a couple people struck down with the plague will survive.
Anna Firth, a housemaid, had just suffered a loss prior to the plague year. Her husband, Sam, was killed in a mine while digging for ore. His body was destroyed and she was left to raise two small children on her own: Tom and Jamie. To help her out she took on a job as a housemaid at the rectory where she meets Elinor and the rector, Mr. Mompellion. It is with these two that she emerges as a heroine and healer for her town. No one knows what to make of the plague, and when the ideas of great doctors result in no immediate cure, Elinor and Anna turn to nature as a means of survival for the people that they see every day. They had previously had midwives and healers, but in their time of fear the town called them witches and blamed them for the destruction that had been set down on their village. They did not even have to repent as the plague struck most of them down anyways as a sort of deserved punishment.
With no other hope, Elinor and Anna become the town healers. They researched the healing qualities of the plants and herbs of the village in the hope that they would stumble on a cure. In the meantime, in an attempt to prevent the plague from spreading to other areas, the Rector suggests that the town cut themselves off from other towns until they are sure the plague has run its course. The town is not easily swayed by this idea, but the rector can be persuasive and they find themselves shut off from all other members of the outside world. The rector also moves his church services to the outside in a hope that distance between his church members would aid in preventing further outbreaks.
Everyone struggles through lose, Anna loses her two small children quite quickly and it is because she has lost her children to care for that she is forced to suffer through and find a new meaning in her life. Whole families are erradicated, families that have lived in the area for centuries. Fights are fought over ownership of land when children are left to tend their family homes. And, quick fixes are seeked, with someone claiming to be the dead midwife and selling "cures" to the villagers. There are also those that turn to darker forms of salvation that are haunting in their descriptions and fearful to think of.
Whatever the hardships that strike this town, because people die from hatred, not just the plague, Brooks does a great job in conveying the message of the struggle but at the same time it is not a depressing novel. There is life in it, even with simple moments of a birthing of a lamb. At the end of the novel, Anna helps the richest family in the community, the family that ran when they had the chance. She finds herself with a new life to live after this encounter, and it is life-filled ending to a deathly novel. The ending may bother some people, though, I warn you depending on what your expectations are.