It’s 1666 and the plague has come to a Anna Frith’s village. Until now, Anna’s life has been on a set path. She grew up with a drunk and abusive father, then became the wife of a miner, then became a widow with two small children. Had the plague not come, perhaps she would have remarried and had more children. No surprises, no changes, nothing outside of the norm.
But when the plague does come, Anna finds herself having and wanting to change her life. Working as a housemaid for the rector and his wife, she sees firsthand the spread of the plague and watches as more and more of the villagers die. Soon her own house is touched and both her babies die. No longer having anything to live for, perhaps she would have gone mad or let herself sink until the plague took her as well. But serving Rector Mompellion and his wife Elinor, her help is needed to tend the villagers in this time of death.
Mr. Mompellion turns to the pulpit, leading his congregation in prayer, trying to find strength in God to see them through the early stages of sickness. When it becomes impossible to ignore that this is the plague, he again calls up the power of God and tells his people that they can serve as a beacon and example to all men by secluding themselves from outsiders and stopping the spread of the disease to save their neighbors. While they suffer losses, they will save lives. The rich escape before the decision is made but those left behind grab on to the ideal that there is a greater good. Plans are made for supplies to be left at a safe distance so no one will have to leave the boundaries of the village and neighboring areas are happy to keep them fed if it means their own people will be safe.
No one could know how long this self imposed isolation could last, how many people the plague would take, and what would happen to the minds of the survivors.
I am a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks’ novels. Her attention to detail and the research she puts into her stories is impressive.