- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

By Geraldine Brooks
Viking, $24.95, 308 pages

Geraldine Brooks came upon the pretty village of Eyam in the rugged county of Derbyshire, England, when she followed a sign pointing to Plague Village. In the church she discovered a board explaining that like distant London, Eyam had suffered an epidemic of bubonic plague in 1665. Unlike Londoners, however, the villagers did not flee; their clergyman persuaded them to stay put so they would not spread the infection. The quarantine worked, but by the time the disease had run its course two thirds of Eyam's residents were dead.
The story captured the author's imagination. As a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal she had covered modern tragedies in places such as Bosnia and Somalia. "How would faith, relationships and social order survive?" she wondered as she considered the history of Eyam. Her novel "Year of Wonders" explores these questions and offers some answers.
The book's great strength is its evocation of life in the bare limestone hills of 17th-century England. The author writes vigorously, much of the time using the local dialect to put her tale into the mouth of Anna Frith, the 18-year old widow who is her narrator. Anna's lodger becomes the first victim of the plague, and her two little sons die soon afterwards. As the disease sweeps through the village, families are decimated, animals go untended, and the lead mines remain idle — a serious problem when local custom allowed anyone to claim an unworked mine, and hence the livelihood that could be won from it.
Lacking the 19th-century discovery that bites from fleas from infected rats are the disease vector, the people of Eyam accept the plague as a visitation from God — a view urged by their clergyman Michael Mompellion and not unfamiliar in the century when Puritans propounded doctrines of Divine whim. But why Eyam? Some villagers think that witches may be at work. Suspicion falls on the local midwife and herbalist Mem Gowdie and her niece Anys. Both are killed in superstitious revenge, leaving Eyam without its chief medical resource — doctors being both rare and unwilling to treat plague victims even when they can afford to pay — an expense few of the villagers can shoulder in any case.
Elinor Mompellion, the clergyman's wife, takes the Gowdies' place. Anna has been her servant, and now works with her identifying herbs, compounding them into remedies, tending the sick, and delivering women in childbirth. Life for her and the Mompellions is agonizingly tiring, but they survive. They are heroes.
Then the plague ends. With it goes much of the energy of the novel, which has thrived on its well-researched descriptions of the physical horrors of the disease and the economic and social devastation it wreaks as it carries off people who have skills essential for the survival of others. Not surprisingly, this brings out the worst in many villagers and craziness in others — phenomena that the author traces with some subtlety.
But it also brings out the best qualities in some, including Elinor and Anna. Here is part of the problem with the book. Both of them are good: too good. Any moral clouds that shade them evaporate in the shine of the saintlike virtues. In other words, the author steeps them in the syrup of sentimentality rather than letting them walk and work and sometimes founder in the dappled light of reality. Thus, when the plague abates, taking with it much of the demand for their services, their doings cannot generate anything to equal its drama.
Attention now turns to Mompellion. A charismatic teacher and a vigorous leader of his flock, he, too, has seemed saintlike in his ministry to the sick and dying. But the end of the epidemic finds him sunk in despair because he has lost his faith and hence the rationale for his previous life. The author paints a vivid portrait of the outward and visible signs of Mompellion's inward torment, but the trajectory of Mompellion's spiritual life is hazy, largely because Anna's first-person narration inevitably shows him from the outside — as a man of action rather than one of spirituality or contemplation. Eventually he tells her about his relationship with Elinor and how this now contributes to his despair. But these revelations startle the reader more than they illuminate the man's state of mind, this because they relate to so little that has gone before as to seem like an afterthought.
At the end, Anna faces the post-plague world alone. Paradoxically, for all its horrors the plague has freed her by giving her the chance to learn about medicines and midwifery. With these skills come the confidence to create a new life for herself — a life far away, rather romantic and more than a little dreamy. This dreaminess points to the modern fantasies woven into the book. The faith in the beneficence of herbs and in women as guardians of their secrets is central. Then there is the faith in women working together and supporting each other, and conversely, striking out new paths for themselves when necessary. Notably, neither Elinor nor Anna get the illness, even though they constantly expose themselves to infection.
Thus the tale this novel tells insinuates that answers to Geraldine Brooks' questions about surviving trauma lie in womanly strategies. It's a consolation perhaps typical of 1666 — John Dryden's Annus Mirabilis and the "Year of Wonders" of the novel's title — when, as Dryden reflected in his poem, "the living few" who survived trace "searching judgments to their dwellings."

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic living in Amherst, Mass.

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