Friday, July 30, 2010

Review: Year of Wonders

Author:Geraldine Brooks
Format: audio 10 hrs; and hardback 336 pgs
Subject: The Bubonic Plague
Setting: English village of Eyam England, 1665-66
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Public library
Challenge: Brit Lit

I've had this one on my TBR list for quite a while, so I was thrilled when our Seniors Book Club chose it for the fiction selection for August.  We'll meet next Monday to discuss it and I have a feeling it will be a hit.  Brooks tells the story of how one village, under the leadership and inspiration of its Vicar Montpellion and his wife Elinor, chose to isolate themselves and seal off the village for an entire year to prevent the plague from spreading.  The story is told from the voice of Anna Frith who emerges as the central character.  A young woman, widowed with two children, barely in her twenties, she is employed by the Vicar's wife to help in the rectory.  They send a boarder to her, a young tailor who brings a bolt of cloth with him, and who subsequently develops the plague.  Ultimately, the belief is that the cloth contained the seeds of the plague.  As the tailor dies, he begs Anna to "burn it, burn it all."

Once the people of the village decide to isolate themselves, the vicar helps them develop an infrastructure to meet their needs, giving them a way to maintain contact with the outside world without physical interaction with humans.  As more and more people fall ill and die, Anna and Elinor become more adept at nursing, the villagers either come to rely on their religious faith, or fall away in despair.  Superstition abounds, as does suspicion of anyone gifted in the the healing arts.  Not only do we learn about plague, and about human kindness and meaness, we also are painted a picture of early  lead-mining techniques: the dangers, laws, and results of the perilous endeavor which was the backbone of the economy in the village.  While Anna raised sheep and grew a few crops, as a widow, she had no way of mining her late husband's claim, which fell to others to take over when he was killed in a cave-in. 

This is a powerful book, written with great attention to detail and showing much evidence of research and familiarity with the setting and the science.  The characters are compelling. There are extreme acts of bravery and love, and equally extreme acts of savage cruelty and selfishness.  Brooks has us believing them all.  In the end, dire secrets are revealed, and lives are forever altered. The ending is stunning - I had to read it twice to catch it because I almost couldn't believe what I thought I read. Year of Wonders should be a definite addition to your TBR pile if you like history, good characters, and a little health science too.


  1. Ok, the stunning ending part almost had me but...besides the fact that the Plague scares me, I refuse to read books with partial heads on the cover. No head, as is very popular, is even worse.

    But good review.

  2. I was coming to say how much I enjoyed Brooks' People of the Book and that this looks interesting too, but Caite's comment about the covers started me chuckling! She's so right about those heads! Must make it easy to pass by books at the bookstore!

  3. On my list. This sounds really good.


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