Historical fiction about the bubonic plague of 1665–66 was understandably on people’s reading lists as they lived through the coronavirus pandemic of our era. Readers were not only curious how much was known about infectious diseases more than three centuries ago but also hungry for inspiring stories about courageous responses to a mysterious killer.
The first novel by journalist Geraldine Brooks is based on a true story of a remote British village whose citizens chose not to flee when the first deaths occurred so as not to spread the plague outside the village borders. Three-quarters of the village perished.
The narrator of Year of Wonders is Anna Frith, who at 18 is already a widow, her husband a victim of a mining accident. A housekeeper for the rector, she has two young sons to keep up her spirits. But soon they too are gone, along with the village’s two herbal healers and midwives. Anna and the rector’s selfless wife delve into medical texts and tend to an herbal garden as they attempt to nurse their neighbors. As deaths mount, superstitions, violence, and disturbing practices like self-flagellation and devil worship arise.
Brooks is excellent at conveying a sense of the life, customs, and beliefs of rural 17th-century England. She falters in the closing, however, with an unbelievable disclosure about a central character and an improbable ending for Anna.
“The Plague Village” of Eyam in Derbyshire still exists.
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