Year of Wonders
The reluctant hero. It's a tale as old as time and one of my favorites, although I prefer to frame it as a hero of circumstance. This theme is extremely common in comic books and fantasy literature, feel-good news stories, and war-time movies. But I find it such an interesting contemplation for life: are great people drawn into extraordinary circumstances or do extraordinary circumstances create great people? For my part, I am drawn to the latter and, it seems, so is Geraldine Brooks.
I actually read this book towards the end of 2019 - you know, in my blogging draught - but I really loved it and it's the epitome of what I think this blog is about so I wanted to circle back. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a novel of The Plague so if you're queasy about such things, this is your warning. Spoiler: the bubonic plague is horrific.
Our unlikely heroine is Anna Frith - a woman of the servant class who holds little power or agency before the plague grips her small town. As she watches family and friends succumb one-by-one to the disease, she continues to find a well of inner-strength that carries her forward through the nightmarish existence that has gripped her community. Check all the boxes, she earns the Better Characters title.
What amazes me about this book is that it isn't just one of survival - it's a story of incredible self-discovery and growth. Through these horrific circumstances, Anna finds her wings and soars, becoming a kind of woman she would have never dreamed and doing things she couldn't have imagined in her previous life. The only thing, historically, that's curbed inequality: catastrophe. That is not to say that Anna looks to take advantage of this, but she does benefit from it. The duality that something so beautiful as finding your power can come from something so horrendous as the plague is captivating. I think the title of this book captures that idea perfectly - we think of wonder as a generally magical, uplifting idea but to wonder is to stand in awe of the unexplainable, and that can be both great and terrible.
Speaking of the unexplainable, as you may have guessed there is a strong spiritual element to this novel. It's 1665 - post Protestant Reformation - and that which can't be explained must be attributed to a higher power. The secondary character of this book is the new, young minister of their community who convinces everyone that it is their Christian duty to quarantine themselves and prevent the spread of the plague, that God has called on them to find the strength to carry this burden. But as the months go by and no respite is provided, faith is questioned while mob-like thoughts of witch-craft and demonic curses spread as rapidly as the bacterial contagion. As suspicions compound, Anna also must wrestle with her own beliefs as each day challenges what she thought she knew as truth.
To not be forgotten is our second Better Character, Elinor Mompellion and with her presence this book passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors*. Elinor is a bit of a mystery - a woman of the upper classes who marries below her station, doesn't see status in the ways others do, and has knowledge that you wouldn't expect of her humble attitude. She becomes Anna's friend and mentor, and is also the wife of the influential young minister. While most often playing a supporting role in the unfolding events, that support is often exactly the thing most needed to carry on. Every story has a heroine, but behind that heroine is the Elinor holding her (and everybody) up when they are at their very weakest.
A couple last interest points: this story is loosely based on historical events that took place in the small village of Eyam in 1665. Also, Geraldine Brooks worked for 11 years as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and her beats included some of the world's most troubled ares. Her present-day experiences as a journalist bring authenticity to this story and her characters - the events are extraordinary but at no point did I believe the actions of any of the characters to be unbelievable. In an interview, Ms. Brooks said, "I have met during my years as a reported in the Middle East and Africa women who had lived lives that were highly circumscribed and restricted, until thrown into sudden turmoil by a crisis such as war or famine...If those women could change and grow so remarkably, I reasoned that Anna could, too."
Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks
Fiction, Historical Fiction
*I always like to point out when a story passes the Bechdel test but in this case, honestly do any of these women have time to talk about men when their community is suffering and dying? Of course not, this book crushes the Bechdel test.