“Year of Wonders” book review

Year of WondersThe latest book for our book club was “Year of Wonders”, subtitled “A Novel of the Plague”.  What a wonderfully uplifting book.  Ha, just kidding!  It’s a story about a village in England where three quarters of the people die in one year.

So, why would anyone want to write a book like this?  The hook is that when the village of Eyam first started getting the plague, they decided to quarantine themselves so that they wouldn’t spread the plague to other communities.  The other folks in nearby towns appreciated this so much that they provided them with food and supplies during the quarantine.  This town is actually quite famous in England and scientists have even done genetic research on the current residents of the town to see if the ancestors of the survivors have a genetic predisposition to avoiding The Plague.

This story is a fictional representation of what it may have been like for the residents of this town that were all trapped together and dying like flies.  It is told from the perspective of the maid at the rectory … Anna Frith.  The plague first showed up at her house via a shipment of flea-infested cloth and killed her lodger and children, but didn’t infect her at all.

The book used a lot of the language of the time and was interesting to read, although I had to look up the meaning of a lot of the words.  The writer had to put the reader back into the 1600’s to be able to understand the mindset of the people at the time.  They had some ideas of how the disease was spread, but not enough knowledge to be useful.  We have to remember that the microscope was just being invented and people did not really understand microorganisms.  They seemed to know that it was passed from person to person, and called it “contagion”, but they didn’t know how it happened.  Some people did not catch the disease even if they were in contact with those that did, while others caught it even though they weren’t near others that got it.  They didn’t realize that the fleas could transfer the disease.

This book  really delves into the consternation caused by this lack of knowledge.  The rector, Michael Mompellion, is certain that it is God’s will.  Others believe it is witchcraft.  Others use all sorts of superstitious sorts of methods to avoid the illness.  One lady is beaten to death when she wanders into a nearby village.  What’s interesting is that the maid seems to be the only one that thinks it is something that is passed from person to person and that if more effort was put into studying the disease, rather than praying about it, then perhaps they would have a better chance of survival.  In this day and age, that seems so obvious, but back then it would have been a revelation to figure that out.

This book has an awful lot of stuff going on, way more than what could have happened.  At first this seems overdone, but then you realize that the author is trying to pack a lot of ideas of that time period into one story.  There are people helping each other, even making sacrifices, while others are taking advantage of the situation.  There’s a lot of fear, hatred, compassion, and love in this book.  The local herbalists get murdered because the villagers get worked into a fury thinking that they were witches.  Anna’s father is an awful person who takes advantage of his newfound job as gravedigger to charge enormous fees and even tries to bury a live person to collect the fee.  But then, we find out that he had a horrible childhood and you feel sorry for him.  In the end, he dies a terrible death hanging by his hands that had been nailed to a post.  It was hard to know if you should feel bad for him, because of his childhood, or if you felt he got the justice he deserved.

The last part of the book deviated quite a bit from the rest of the book.  Instead of the tale of the town, it quickly runs through Anna’s life after the quarantine is lifted.  Somehow she ends up in Africa.  It deviated so much and so fast, that it was quite distracting.  A number of online reviews pointed this out and thought that it detracted from the book.

On the other hand, several of our book club members liked it and pointed out that it represented more than just Anna’s life, but rather was an allegory for the times she lived in, much as the first part of the book was an attempt to show what it would have been like to live in a Plagued village.  Given that, the ending was much more palatable.

The big question about his book is could it have happened in this day and age.  Would a small town in northeastern Indiana have made the sacrifice they made to quarantine themselves for a year while everyone was dying.  Of course the situation would have to be different, because we have modern medicine, but would a town make a similar sort of sacrifice for the sake of other towns in the area.

We had lot of discussion about this last question, but in the end decided that we couldn’t come up with a likely situation.  Aspects of transportation, communication, and economics make it too hard establish a similiar scenario.  Our world is so interconnected that it would be almost impossible to cut a community off “the grid”.

All in all, this was a pretty good book that generated an interesting discussion with our group.  I would recommend it for any book club.

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