From Janet’s library: A Year of Wonders

I’m majoring in history and geography, so this book by Geraldine Brooks appealed to me when Janet pulled it off the shelf. A Year of Wonders is a fictionalized account of a 17th century English village that reacts to the arrival of the Plague by quarantining itself from the rest of the world. The isolation provides a kind of psychological laboratory that examines the ways in which communities experience mass fear, mass hysteria, and the consequences of losing 2/3 of its population in the space of a year.

The story is told from the point of view of Anna, a maid for the local minister and his wife. It is the minister who through the force of his personality convinces the villagers to close them off from the rest of the world, and who struggles mightily to keep them from succumbing to superstition even as entire families of their neighbors die. Anna is a sympathetic narrator, not immune to the tragedies wrought by the infection. The oddity of a peasant-class woman knowing how to read and write is addressed in the text.

I thought I knew where this book was going, if not the details, but the ending really took me by surprise. The unusual twist requires the reader to re-examine their assumptions and casts familiar characters in an entirely new light. I don’t know how realistic it is — not very, I suspect — but it surely made me think.

Another interesting aspect: Brooks’ afterword details her research into a real-life village that was the inspiration for her novel. While she used many of the known facts, they are few and far between, which gave Brooks a license to invent. I suspect that if we were able to know the true story it would be fascinating in its own right, but in the absence of that, Brooks has given us a fine substitute.

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