About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Year of Wonders? Wonderful!

Wow, not quite halfway through June, and I've finished my 50th book of the year -- Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Penguin, 2001). At just over 300 pages, it's one of the shorter books I've read lately, and I knocked it off in a night (blame the Friday night Star Trek marathon again). Nonetheless, I expect it will stay with me far longer than this. I liked March; I loved People of the Book; so I fully expected to enjoy Brooks' debut novel as well -- but Year of Wonders still exceeded my expectations.

Simply put, this book is luminous. The surprises begin with the title; how on earth can a story that tells you on the front cover that it's about the bubonic plague carry a title of "Wonders"? It turns out the title refers to the transformations within Anna Frith, the young widow and pastor's housemaid who narrates the story. The tale opens in Fall of 1666, with a numb and exhausted Anna musing on the brokenness of her employer, Mr. Mompellion:
"His eyes are the same, but his face has altered so, drawn and haggard, each line etched deep. When he came here, just three years since, the whole village made a jest of his youthful looks and laughed at the idea of being preached at by such a pup. If they saw him now, they would not laugh, even if they could remember how to do so. ... He won't let me lay a fire. He won't let me give him even that little bit of comfort. Finally, when I'd run out of things to pretend to do, I left him."
It's soon evident that not only Mompellion, but Anna and the other surviving villagers, are equally dispirited:
"At day's end, when I leave the rectory for home, I prefer to walk through the orchard on the hill rather than go by the road and risk meeting people. After all we've been through together, it's just not possible to pass with a polite, 'Good night t'ye.' And yet I haven't the strength for more. Sometimes, not often, the orchard can bring back better times to me. These memories of happiness are fleeting things, reflections in a stream, glimpsed all broken for a second and then swept away in the current of grief that is our life now. I can't say I ever feel what it felt like then, when I was happy. But sometimes something will touch the place where that feeling was, a touch as slight and swift as the brush of a moth's wing in the dark."
Into this diminished village sweeps the unexpected and very much unwelcome Elizabeth Bradford, desparately seeking Mompellion's aid for her gravely ill mother. Still mourning the loss of his beloved wife Elinor, and recalling how the wealthy Bradfords fled Eyem at the start of the plague epidemic, turning loyal servants into the street and never once aiding the devastated villagers, Mompellion sends her away. "'If your mother seeks me out to give her absolution like a Papist, then she has made a long and uncomfortable journey to no end. Let her speak directly to God to ask forgiveness for her conduct. But I fear she may find Him a poor listener, as many of us here have done.'"

Anna then looks back a year and a half, before the plague outbreak, to the arrival of journeyman tailor George Viccars on her doorstep, seeking to rent a room at the advice of the Mompellions. With the recent death of her husband, and the loss of income from his mine, Anna at first is merely grateful for the money, but soon comes to appreciate George's kindness toward her young sons, and a friendship blossoms. As she contemplates letting it deepen, George is suddenly stricken by a strange, terrifying illness, and dies within the day: the village's first plague victim, sickened by an infected bolt of cloth from a pestilential London.

After a few uneventful halcyon September weeks, the sickness spreads, claiming Anna's sons among its first casualties. When it becomes evident that plague has come to Eyem, Mompellion urges the villagers to quarantine themselves, rather than fleeing the village and potentially taking plague seeds with them. With the notable exception of the Bradfords, most agree, and a grueling odyssey begins. At first, the villagers turn to crone Mem Gowdie and her niece Anys, who are at once revered and feared for their knowledge of herbal remedies, but when their treatments fail to stave off death, both are accused of witchcraft and murdered. This leaves only Anna and Elinor to sort through the Gowdies' store of herbs and the Mompellions' books and letters in search of whatever meager treatments they can discern. Along the way, they go from servant and mistress to friends and comrades, and Anna discovers in her own grief the strength and courage to minister to the suffering and confront her sadistic father.

Even knowing, based on the first chapter, that Anna and Mompellion survive the quarantine, while Elinor does not, I stayed up way past my bedtime to find out how they got there. This was due in no small part to Brooks' exquisite way with language. She manages to make a tale of bubonic plague tragic, but also hopeful; likewise, she renders Anna's story in a way that's both authentic in its own time, and accessible today. She also throws in a few surprises, just in case you had the mistaken impression that you already knew how everything was going to end. Easily one of my favorite reads of the year so far. Highly recommended.

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