Friday, February 24, 2012

The Year of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks represents my third encounter with Brooks. March, a novel of the father figure in Alcott’s Little Women was the first, and the magnificent People of the Book both set high standards for historical fiction. Brooks has come up with another detailed and well-researched novel of the 1666 plague outbreak in England. She won Pulitzer Prizes for March and Years.

Based on the true story of Eyam, a small village in Derbyshire, Brooks has managed to convey the terror and frightening consequences of this catastrophic event. Anne Frith is a widow with two young children. Her husband died in a mine collapse. She tends her flock of sheep, raises the children, and works each morning as housekeeper and cook for the village pastor.

This novel not only instructs about events in 17th century England, it also provides some interesting insights on our society today.

One interesting parallel with modern society lies in the succumbing to superstitions. How often do we cross our fingers, knock on wood, or throw salt over our shoulder? These benign examples only begin to scratch the surface of our superstitious society. I am still amazed to enter an elevator and find no 13th floor – even in new buildings!

Two local women provide herbal remedies to the village, and the wife of the pastor, Elizabeth Mompellion uses them and recommends them to Anne. Brooks writes, “But of her herb knowledge I wanted none; it is one thing for a pastor’s wife to have such learning and another thing again for a widow woman of my sort. I knew how easy it is for [a] widow to be turned witch in the common mind, and the first cause generally is that she meddles somehow in medicinals.” (38)

The prose Brooks uses has such a wonderful pastoral tone, I sometimes forgot this was set in the middle of a terrible tragedy. “At last, I called to Jamie and we, too, set our feet on the path for home. All along the way, Jamie kept darting off like a swallow, swooping down to pluck the blowsy, late-blooming dog roses. When we neared the cottage, he bad, he made me wait by the door while he ran inside. ‘Close your eyes, Mummy,’ he cried excitedly. Obediently, I waited, my face buried in my hands, wondering what game he was devising. I heard him thump up the stairs, scrambling, as he did when he was in a hurry, on all fours like a puppy. A few moments passed, and then I heard the upstairs casement creak open. ‘All right Mummy. Now! Look up!’ I tilted my face and opened my eyes to find myself in a velvet rain of rose petals. The soft, sweet shower brushed my cheeks. I pulled off my cap and shook out my long hair and let petals land in its tangles. ‘This,’ I thought, smiling gratefully up at him, ‘this moment is my miracle.’” (71)

Anne Frith is a strong, intelligent, and empathetic woman, who overcomes incredible obstacles and survives. She is the centerpiece of this story, the best, and most likeable character, and I marvel at her reasoning skills. Brooks has wonderfully captured the voice of 1666 England, and easily reminds me of Samuel Pepys. Brooks has another novel, Caleb’s Crossing, which I can’t wait to begin. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 2/19/12

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