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Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

by Geraldine Brooks
New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Pp. 308.

by Nancy Kerstetter

Not quite sure why I selected this book to read on a recent road trip. A friend loaned it to me. Perhaps I was curious to see how the author would tell the story of the plague in a historical fiction format. I know now. Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks is a grim, troublesome read. What else could it be since John Cleese was not involved?

year of wonders book coverYear of Wonders has enjoyed tremendous success and popularity since its debut, but I do not see why. The narrative is uneven. Characters and their motives are sometimes inadequately introduced as the reader repeatedly finds essential information lacking. The storyline takes many twists and turns leading readers on a thread of a trail while valiantly trying to keep up. These factors make the story hard to follow.

The author conducted tedious research. Real facts are fragmentary regarding the small English village that took the altruistic precedent of closing themselves off from all outsiders once the plague was identified in their community. But Brooks was intrigued with their actions in taking the unusual step that prevented the plague from spreading through the countryside and decimating the broader population. Brooks makes the story plausible because she knows how to find information due to her journalism training. She has authored a few non-fiction books, but this is her first foray into the world of fiction.

The author states, "The written record of what happened in Eyam during the plague year is scant. Apart from three letters by the rector, no narrative account from the year itself actually exists. The •histories• that purport to record the facts were actually written many years later, and historians have found inconsistencies that cast doubt on their accuracy. Therefore, there was no way to write a satisfying nonfiction narrative."

The main character is Anna Frith, a dispirited, young woman living in the difficult times of 1665. Anna is a wife with two young sons who becomes a widow before facing an increasing amount of loss as the story progresses. Everyone who means anything to her fades away. By the end of the novel, only a few of the named characters are alive.

Anna serves as a housemaid for the village rector and his wife, Michael and Elinor Mompellion. Over the course of the year, Elinor befriends and mentors Anna on many subjects. She teaches Anna to read, how to midwife and how use herbs to heal common maladies. The quarantined village no longer has a doctor to care for the ill, so these two women work tirelessly to aid the sick.

There are several subplots which propel the story to its finish. A rich family who could alleviate much suffering, chooses to look out for themselves only. Superstition and fear of witches pervade the rural population. Predictably, two village women are accused of being witches and causing the plague. The most ambiguous subplot involves the peculiar relationship Anna has with her father who is a self absorbed, no-account rascal. Brooks is unclear in constructing the conflict between father and daughter. Readers may have to draw their own conclusions based on the meager facts provided. He is a dishonorable scoundrel, but little else is clear-cut.

Undaunted by the problematic narration, I persevered to the end. The ending is a bit bizarre. Anna survives the arduous year of plague to escape the harsh living conditions of the country village. The details of where she goes and how she gets there is a good flight of fantasy. This finale is perplexing, but then the whole book was a challenge. The problems started with the first chapter which is an out-of-order flashback. I wanted to like this book, but it has too many troubling issues. Many bestsellers are making their way to the big screen. If Year of Wonders becomes a movie at my neighborhood theater, I will stay home to watch reruns of Harry Potter.

You can obtain this book from your local library, interlibrary loan or from Amazon: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague.

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