At first, I thought this may not be a good book to read at the moment, given its subject matter and the current state of affairs. Yet, surprisingly this book actually made me feel better and provided some insight into the impact this pandemic can have on all of us.
Geraldine Brooks has a way of grabbing the reader right from the onset with just enough detail that leaves the reader wanting more. “Year of Wonders” opens in the spring of 1666 with the main character Anna apple picking in the orchard. She quickly notes that if there is one thing that she hates it is the smell of rotting apples and that she has had to smell them for way too long. She brings the apples to the rectory where she works and the reader is quick to pick up that something is just not right, from the tired staff that can barely keep up with the day-to-day maintenance to the rector himself who doesn’t want to eat and is in a state of isolation. The mood is definitely one of gloom. You can’t help but wonder, what happened here?
Brooks then transports the reader back to the fall of 1665 where Anna is living as a widow with two sons, her husband dead from a mining accident. One day, a boarder shows up on Anna’s door having been directed by the rectory that she can take him in. The guy is a tailor and has been kept busy taking orders from other people in the village. Yet that is where the story really starts.
One day the boarder comes down with a mysterious illness and less than a day later he is dead. While strange, no one thinks anything of it, until the people who last had contact with him start to get ill and there are reports from London that people have started to leave the city in droves because the plague is making its rounds.
“One walks, if one must walk, in the very center of the roadway to avoid the contagion, seeping from dwellings. Those who must move through the poorer parishes cover their faces in her stuffed masks contrived like the beaks of great birds. People go through the streets like drunkards, weaving from this side to that as to avoid passing to close to any other pedestrian… One rarely sees a wigg’d gallant or a powdered lady, for wealth and connection are no shield against plague”
As their village starts to be heavily impacted by the plague, the rector calls on the villagers to agree to a quarantine, essentially locking down the village to any outsiders. This is when they are given their true test as they watch whole families ravaged by the illness and desperation leads to crime and even murder.
I was shocked by how relatable this story was. And then I saw it was inspired by a true story of a “plague village” in Derbyshire back in the 1600s. But it wasn’t that the story was based on fact (aren’t they all?) but it was the actions that the characters take to avoid infection and try to combat the illness.
“We placed ourselves so that some three yards separated each family group believing this to be sufficient distance to avoid the passing of infection”
Sounds familiar huh? I certainly didn’t know that they were practicing social distancing back then. Though in the book they actually distance themselves 9 feet compared to the six feet that is currently recommended. Perhaps they knew something back then that we don’t?
They were also determining how fatal the illness was by the number of people infected. As they go to church each Sunday, which has since been moved to the outdoors so they have more room to distance themselves, they realize how many have been infected by who is not there. They also realize when they are starting to get over the illness by the decrease in the number of deaths. To us, that terminology has been dubbed “flattening the curve.”
“Yesterday I have filed in my mind as a good day, notwithstanding it was filled with mortal illness and the grieving of the recently bereft. Yet it is a good day for the simple fact that noone died upon it. We are brought to a sorry state that we measure what is a good day by such a shortened yardstick.”
By exploring what a fatal illness can do to a village and the families that live inside that village, Brooks also raises thematic questions that the characters struggle to answer. For example, nature vs faith. At one point, it strikes Anna that perhaps everything that has happened is not all God’s doing. She begins to seriously consider how nature has caused the turn of events and perhaps studying that more could give them the answers they need to cure it. She and the rectors wife experiment with different herbs to help soothe symptoms and find that some patients are even recovering.
If people can overcome the plague than we too shall get over COVID-19. In fact, after reading this, it seems the plague is much worse. I think the fear with our current pandemic is the unknown and the fact that it is a new virus. Yet, there are already vaccines and treatments underway. So like in the book, this too shall pass.
The ending of the book was a little bittersweet, given everything that happened. And yet it seems to work and provides a little hope for the future. This book is definitely worth reading, though I understand why some people would want to wait.
Have you read this “Year of Wonders”? What other books like this would you recommend? Let’s discuss!