Book Review of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

by JoHarrington

When plague came to Eyam, the villagers chose to quarantine themselves to save their neighbors. This is a novel about what it was like to be there, trapped within deadly streets.

The self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam is a true story. It actually happened in 17th century England. But the characters in this story are fictitious.

Anna Frith is an eighteen year old widow, living with her two infant sons, when plague breaks out. Along with the rest of her family and neighbors, she agrees to remain within the boundaries of the village.

She is our eyes into a world so tragic and courageous, that many of us can't quite grasp it. Make no mistake, you will cry while reading this story.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders: Fictitious Story - True Historical Event

It was a visit to the real Eyam which inspired Geraldine Brooks to write this novel.

I have been to Eyam twice, several years apart. On both occasions, I have followed that visit with reading Geraldine Brooks's historical novel set there.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague helps us make sense of the real events that happened there. It gives us a living, breathing (albeit utterly fictitious) person with whom to identify.

Could you or I have stayed in a village, while the Black Death took three-quarters of the population?  Fine resolve at the outset would have faced cruel testing, when the reality of that most ugly of deaths played out around us.

Worse still when it took those we loved. 

People did that in reality, during fourteen months in 1665-1666. Whole families were consigned to the plague pits, or hurriedly buried in gardens by grieving relatives.  Any social contact could condemn yourself and your household to join them.

Geraldine Brooks takes us right into the horrors of this situation, but in a way which emphasizes  courage and human foibles.  It makes for a compelling and emotional read.

What is Year of Wonders About?

It's the story of a young woman caught up in the Plague Year of 1665-1666.

Anna Frith married young and was widowed young. She is only eighteen years old at the start of the story.

Working as a housemaid in both the local stately home and the rectory, she struggles to make ends meet. She has two young sons - one just a baby - to keep.

Her circumstances are what prompts the vicar to direct a traveler to her home. She agrees to take him in as a lodger, but that decision will have horrific consequences for the whole village.

Her lodger is George Viccars, a tailor, who receives a deadly parcel from London. Hidden between the soggy folds of material are fleas. They have gorged on blood infected with Black Death; and they feed now upon the tailor.

For the next fourteen months, Eyam is at the mercy of the plague.  Anna is just one of the people doing her best to survive through the quarantine that keeps them at ground zero. She will also do her utmost to ensure that those around her make it through too.

Along the way, she will discover inner reserves of courage and skill, which she did not know that she possessed.

Learn More About the Reality in Eyam

In 1666, around 800 people chose to sacrifice themselves, in order to save the lives of thousands of strangers. Could you have done that?
Beautiful views over the Derbyshire Dales and 17th century buildings greet visitors to Eyam. It's a little village with an awe-inspiring historical tale to tell.

Year of Wonders: A Heart-Rending Emotional Tale

This isn't a history text-book. It's an easy read, but the subject matter is not.

It was close to 3am.  Just a handful of days previously, I had been in Eyam. Now I was in my own bed, completely unable to put this book down.

The tears in my eyes forced it.  I couldn't read the lines before me any more. The scene playing out in my mind's eye was too vivid, too real. 

I'd wipe my eyes - trying not to cry too loudly for fear of waking up everyone else in my house - then read another line.  I was gone.  I could picture it all too well.  Another few seconds were lost in trying to control my emotions enough to read on.

Geraldine Brooks's writing will do this to you.  It's not just sorrow, but page-turning fervor to find out what happens next. There is action in this story, as well as quiet contemplation. There are scenes which will make you cringe for the heroine; and, occasionally, laugh with her too.

The author plays straight for the emotions. But does so in such a manner as to leave the reader constantly pondering - what would I have done? 

Rose Cottage in Eyam, Derbyshire

Anna Frith would have lived in a house very like this one. In fact, the story suggests that it was indeed Rose Cottage.
Image:  Rose Cottage, Eyam
Image: Rose Cottage, Eyam
Jo Harrington

How Historically Accurate is Year of Wonders?

In the broadest sense, very much so; but in the human casting, absolutely not.

Geraldine Brooks is not attempting to write a history book.  It is a novel set against the backdrop of a real historical event.

In her preface, she explains very clearly that she has taken liberties with some of the actual stories. This is most evident with her treatment of the main characters:

  • Anna Frith and her family did not exist, though the surname was common in the village at the time. 
  • For her major personae, real people may have been replaced by fictitious ones. She did this out of respect for the dead, and also to give her freedom to subvert or combine their stories. This helped with the flow of the narrative.
  • Actual historical people do turn up in cameo roles.  If this is the case, then the author usually does not mess with their tales at all.

As someone who knows the history of Eyam, I did have to constantly rearrange facets of the telling in my mind.  This will not be a problem for anyone new to the story.

For example, George Viccars was a boy, serving an apprenticeship with the tailor Alexander Hadfield.  He was certainly the first plague victim; and this came about because he was the one charged with drying the contents of the parcel from London.  That is the reality.

In the book, George Viccars is a grown man and a tailor in his own right. Everything else plays out as happened, but he is in Anna Frith's house.  The Hadfields live next door and become incidental to the telling.

This is also the main example of Geraldine Brooks not changing a name. Generally, as with Michael and Eleanor Mompellion (based upon William and Catherine Mompesson), the names are altered along with their actual stories.

In the broadest sense though, Year of Wonders creates an authentic world. If you just want a taste of 17th century life, then it does well enough.  Indeed, it does much better than many other novels in its genre - and you can take that from an historian!

Year of Wonders (Kindle)

Buy this version to enjoy the story on your e-Reader.

Year of Wonders (Guide)

Buy this Kindle e-book for study and discussion notes.

Criticism of Year of Wonders

The narrative strayed a little too far into combining true life stories for my taste.

Year of Wonders is exceptionally well written.  It's compelling and keeps the reader's interest throughout. 

I did enjoy Geraldine Brooks's writing style.  Indeed, she went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for a subsequent novel, March.

However, I felt that she tried too hard to ensure that Anna Frith - and thus the reader - was present at every major incident.  Nor was she merely there as a witness, which wouldn't have stretched the bounds of realism.  She became the protagonist for every act of heroism, courage and significant happening during those fourteen months.

After a while, it seemed that no-one could die, give birth or live through any other life event, without Anna Frith in attendance. She became skilled in a host of activities seemingly overnight.

If her station in life and the realities of the age combined to keep her ignorant, then the action switched to her best friend and mentor, Eleanor Mompellion. Even then, Anna watched her once and became just as learned and competent.

As much as I hate to say it, it really was like Mary-Sue does plague.  Especially since every man in the village fell in love with her; and her tragic past and youth were constantly emphasized.

I cringe even as I write this, because I honestly do think that Mary-Sue is too damaging a concept to usefully exist in literary criticism. But it's very blatant on this occasion. 

I will, however, mitigate that by saying that Anna Frith is as well-written and acceptable as any such character can be.  And she does serve her purpose. The reader is taken into the heart of Eyam's collective story; and emerges stunned as a result.

Despite all that I've said here, I still do recommend reading Year of Wonders.  I have read it twice in my life; and I can see myself eventually reading it again.  As a diverting novel, which explains the issues of that time and place, it's currently unparalleled.

Jigsaws with Scenes from Eyam, the Plague Village

These pictures are from the real world Derbyshire plague village, where 'Year of Wonders' is set.

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Updated: on 04/16/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 09/11/2012

Despite my misgivings at the end, I do still recommend it. It certainly brings the Eyam story to life. I've read it twice now, both after visits to Eyam.

Paul on 09/11/2012

I'm tempted to pick this book up, especially after reading your articles on Eyam. Taking the choice must've been soul crushing.



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