How does the novel describe the disease of plague and its impact, and how is this relevant to current discussions about modern epidemics, such as AIDS, and potential epidemics caused by disease or by terrorism?
Early seventeen century marked both the dawn of modern medicine and the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment all over Europe. In England these years came into history thanks to restoration – a revolution in every aspect of life of the society. In 1662, the Royal Society was established by King Charles destined to promote the scrutiny of natural science. The world was undergoing rapid changes, and its central focus shifted from God to man. “A Year of Wonder: A Novel of the Plague” by Geraldine Brooks is based on the true story of English village situated in the rugged mountain spine, Eyam, which entered into history as “Plague Village”. In 1966, a piece of cloth from London brought bubonic infection of Plague ("The Black Death") to this isolated from the outside world settlement of shepherds, lead miners, cobblers and weavers. Bubonic Plague has been described as 'the most dangerous disease known to mankind' and has killed more people than all the wars ever fought between the nations of the world. Only during the years between 1347 and 1352, this infection took 25 million people in Europe ("PLAGUE." LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia).
The subtitle of the book is A Novel of the Plague, and it makes one wonder why epidemics can be so grimly fascinating. Today, we have plenty of diseases and disasters that haunt us, such as AIDS, Ebola, threat of biological terrorism and warfare with biological weapons as antrax or smallpox. Maybe getting absorbed in the scourges of past and learning the lessons thereof is a way of dealing with these disasters (Kathy Weissman).
Another reason of different approaches to serious diseases lies in differences between 17th Century way thinking and one of contemporary people. Instead of modern effort to get rational explanation of the causes of disease or natural catastrophe, those days favored irrational approach, supporting the belief that tragedies like these were sent from heaven to punish people for their sins, or sent by the devil. In Year of Wonders, the tension between theological view of the world, and of the plague particularly, and nascent attempts to apply to the science of medicine, are apparent. The words of Brooks’ protagonist carry a message which is a key to main idea of the book regarding Plague and its roots: "Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe" (G. Brooks,2002).
The main topic of the book is picturing the community dealing with crisis, which is another subject close to modern people, especially to New Yorkers after events of 9/11. The book portrays the town called Eyam, which, led by its vicar, resolved to quarantine itself (no one was allowed to enter it; no one was let out) until the plague had done its worst, which is an extraordinarily altruist step.
The story is told by 18-year-old woman named Anna Frith. She found escape from her abusive father several years before in the form of marriage to a goodhearted but uncouth miner, who gave her two sons then was killed in a cave-in. After the death of his husband Anna worked as a housemaid in the local rectory; she was also taken in a boarder: the tailor who became the town's first plague victim. As the development unfold, Anna came under the lucky influence of the vicar, Mr. Mompellion, and his wife Elinor, who taught her to read and treated her as an equal and friend.
When Geraldine Brooks found out about events in the village of Eyam in 1966, she wanted to write non-fiction work describing these developments. But the written record of the developments in the village during the plague was very scant. Besides three rector’s letters, there is no narrative account from the year itself. The histories describing the facts were written many years later, and historians found inconsistencies in these stories. Therefore, there was no possibility to write true and accurate nonfiction narrative. That’s why the author decided to tell the story in the form of the fiction (Kathy Weissman).
The unique thing about quarantine in Eyam is that it was voluntary. Brooks wasn’t able to find any other examples of such mass self-sacrifice. In London, for example, Plague victims were treated terribly. People have become cruel dogs to one another.
The title "Year of Wonders" refers to the John Dryden poem of 1666 "Annus Mirabilis" where despite the devastation of the plague, society revealed its amazing strength and ability to endure and express hope (Daniel Mendelsohn, 2002). Brooks portrays the villagers as they fall victims of the disease in their weaker aspects of human nature when they encounter terror, such as the desire to flee, the panicked search for a scapegoat, the crazy self flagellants, but nevertheless these are not the things that the author wants her readers to see. In the book, she shows human’s ability to rise above the terror - with examples of self sacrifice, strength and compassion.
Portraying the epidemic, author draws very evident parallels connecting us to the present day. In article published in The Washington Post after the September 11, 2001, attacks, she wrote: "Whether we also shall one day look back upon this year of flames, germs and war as a 'year of wonders' will depend, perhaps, on how many are able—like the passengers on United Flight 93 or the firefighters of New York City—to match the courageous self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam." (Suzy Hansen ). Years of Wonders portrays ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of others. September 11, 2001, revealed heroism in those ordinary people who may have gone through their lives never having the opportunity to demonstrate the extent of their courage. It’s sad, but it also revealed a blind desire for revenge and violence that led to the murders of a Muslim, a Sikh, and an Egyptian Copt. The author embodied the same instinct to blame "the other" in the lynching of the Gowdies. Love, hate, fear. The desire to live and to see your children live. To Geraldine Brooks’ mind, these things are no different on a beautiful autumn morning in a twenty-first-century city than they were in an isolated seventeenth-century village. She completely believes one thing, which she puts as principal idea of her book. This thing is that human heart remains human heart, irrespective of material circumstances that move people through life.
"PLAGUE." LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia. © 2003, 2004 LoveToKnow. Retrieved from <http://12.1911encyclopedia.org/P/PL/PLAGUE.htm>
Geraldine Brooks. “A Year of Wonder: A Novel of the Plague”. Penguin Books, May 1, 2002.
Kathy Weissman. “Review of A Year of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks”. Retrieved from <http://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/0142001430.asp>
Daniel Mendelsohn. Review. May 26 2002. Retrieved from <http://www.book-club.co.nz/books/9yearofwonders.htm>
Suzy Hansen. “Review of A Year of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks”. Retrieved from <http://dir.salon.com/books/review/2001/12/06/brooks/index.html>