Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks
My overall impression of this book was that it was well written, the language being distinct with an array of interesting words such as ‘Stowes’ and ‘Barmester’ which led to a lively discussion at our book club session. It is based on a true story set in 1666, and one that I found to be historically powerful (given that I am a history teacher that is only to be expected I guess). It is the story of the Plague. One main theme of the book revolves around God/religion vs. nature and science, with questions around herbal remedies offering a cure for this terrible illness vs. repenting to God for sins in order to be cured. There are many different characters in the story, most notably perhaps the Rector Mompellion who is a strong, charismatic man who tries to help those in suffering and is generally the ‘saviour’ of the town. The most vivid scene for me in this book was the disturbing death of the children of the narrator, Anna, who die from the Plague. Any death is terrible, but the death of these young children, deeply touched my heart. The story also discusses the Bradford family who are the aristocrats of the town and who, upon hearing about the illness that is quickly spreading, leave the town with great urgency, much to the disappointment of the Rector. While this was portrayed as somewhat cowardly, I felt that they had the means to run, and so they did. Surely this is human nature? Would we all not run from the Plague, if we could? In the real story, the Rector in fact does send away his own children when the Plague spreads. The voluntary sacrifice by the village in deciding to stay during the plague, rather than try to run away, was pretty unique, demonstrating once again the power of religion. In London, Samuel Pepys writes in his journal of the terrible treatment meted out to plague victims “we are becoming as cruel as dogs one to another”. At the time, houses of plague victims were sealed and guarded, locking in the well with the ill, with none to bring food, water, comfort of any kind. Pepy’s writes that you could hear the cries of the afflicted coming from houses which were marked with large red crosses and the words ‘God have mercy’. Another interesting historical link in the book, is to the Witchcraze of the time, when women were often (and of course mistakenly) branded as witches and drowned or lynched as a consequence. Here, the trial and brutal murders of Gowdie women are all to descriptively included, reminding us of a time that is better left in the past. I did enjoy reading this first book for our book club and would recommend it to others.