Thursday, May 18, 2006

Year of Wonders

Well. It has been a really long time since I've written a review about anything other than the overwhelming stack of books in my apartment, hasn't it? And as I'm bored with talking about that...

Recently, I read the Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (yes, that Geraldine Brooks) for my real life book club.

Set between 1665 and 1666, the year the Bubonic Plague decimated Europe, it's the story of Anna Firth and the small village of Eyam, where a remarkable thing happened. Eyam, a small village to the north of London, was exposed to the plague when it was brought in a shipment of cloth. Stories had already reached them about the outbreak in London, where people were being buried before they had died, and where anyone with the means to leave did. (As we know, this did nothing but help the plague spread.)

Anna, a young widow who now works as a maid for the Vicar Michael Mompellion and his wife Elinor, takes in George Viccars as a boarder. He settles into their life rather quickly, stepping in as the father figure for Anna's oldest son Jamie, and as a potential husband for Anna herself. However, the day he receives a shipment of cloth from London (he's a tailor), everything changes. George is the first victim in Eyam, but it spreads quickly via the clothes he had made from the cloth. Pretty soon, children and other adults are falling ill, covered in sores and boils, before dying a rather painful death.

And that's when the remarkable thing happened; the vicar makes a plea for everyone in the village to willing quarantine themselves. No one is to enter or leave the village until the plague has left them. Mompellion has worked out an arrangement with the Earl; in exchange for their quarantine, he will provide food and stores, ensuring that those who do not die of the plague will have the means to survive. Despite their fears, the villagers all agree, with the exception of the Bradfords, the wealthiest family in the village. They immediately return to their home and begin packing up their belongings, the Colonel even going so far as to mock Mompellion when he arrives by quizzing him over which book should he bring with him.

From Anna's point of view, we see how the effects of the plague (thought to be God's punishment for sin) affect the villagers. Anna, who buries her own two sons, becomes something of the village mid-wife/wise woman, along with Elinor, after the town's two wise woman are killed for "conspiring with Satan, bringing on the plague, cursing various villagers, engaging in sexual relations, etc." Villagers both cleave together and turn on one another, depending on the various moods of the town. There are also outbreaks of superstition, worshiping the devil, and self-flagellation. Changes happen to the villager's personalities too; Anna's father (a bully to begin with) becomes a grave-digger/attempted murderer in his desire to get rich off the dead's belonging, Elinor, the rather quiet and gentle wife of the vicar, reveals herself to have something of a sordid past, as well as an inner core of strength, and Anna herself grows from a rather weak woman into one of strength and purpose.

A little over a year after the plague first shows up in Eyam, it leaves, taking with it over half the villagers. However, it did not spread to any of the neighboring villages, so the townspeople were successful in that. In the aftermath, Mompellion has fallen apart with his wife's death, the Bradfords have returned, and Anna still hasn't realized her full strength. (I'm deliberately not telling you the ending; there were a lot of surprises in the last few chapters that I think shouldn't be spoiled.)

What made this story so good, in my opinion, was that it was based on facts. There is a village named Eyam, north of London, that did in fact quarantine themselves after the plague arrived to stop it from spreading to neighboring villages. Half of the townspeople survived, seemingly by random. However, in recent years there have been tests done on the direct descendants of the surviving villagers, where it was found that they all carry a gene called "delta 32", which seemingly made them immune. Testing on the gene has also been done in regards to the HIV virus; still in the early stages, the researchers/drug companies are working on a drug that could prevent the HIV virus from attaching to the white-blood cells.

I also found it interesting that the plague first arrived in Europe (Italy) back in 1347. It was brought over by ships from China (where the plague first started) that were carrying flea-infested rats. A year later it reached England, where it killed 100,000 people. After that, it seemingly went into hibernation, popping up now and then, until the Great Plague struck in 1665-6.

And also, there are still outbreaks of plague to this day. In fact, there were cases in LA less than a month ago. Granted, these days we know how the disease is spread and we have antibiotics for it, but it's amazing to me that something the plague is still around. I realize that's a rather naive view, given that we still have Malaria, Small Pox, and Influenza...but maybe that's because we still learn "Ring around the Rosie" as children. (I guess it depends on what you think was the foundation for the nursery rhyme though.)

1 comment:

Danielle said...

I thought this was a good book too! That is interesting about the gene that people have that make them immune. I have always thought this period (the 1600s) was really interesting!