I ordered a book club set of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks from the library and while the rest of the group was deterred by the surprise audio book format (CDs) and ultimately selected In the Garden of Beasts in its traditional book-made-from-paper format, I uploaded Year of Wonders to my phone and I was glad to have hands-free access to this historical fiction title during a month that involved a great deal of travel on foot and on crowded public transit.
While easeful to not have to dig for a book from my bag or bump elbows with strangers to turn pages, the audio book certainly has its other discomforts. For one, the book is about life in England during the Reformation so life is tough and characters die left, right, and centre. (This isn’t a spoiler, the CD jacket cover outlines that this is Brooks’ exploration of a particular town’s experience and exposure to the Plague.) I wasn’t very attached to the characters and I often felt like I wasn’t able to honour them as “real” when one would fall gravely sick and just as I received that news from Geraldine (the author narrates Year of Wonders herself), in my reality I would be returning a smile to a passerby on the street or making faces to a baby across the aisle on the bus. The most awkward of these situations being during the (infrequent) sex scenes where I’d march past folks quickly on the street, rudely not looking up from the street, not wanting to make eye contact with someone as I would be sure to blush. (In my opinion, the sex scenes were too silly to cause a blush were I to have just read the text version.)
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.
A Year of Wonders blew me away, and I also loved People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Despite this, I haven’t actually read her award winning novel March because I feel like I should read Little Women first. Caleb’s Crossing is another piece of historical fiction inspired by true events, like her previous novels (the Civil War a true event, even if the March family was fictional). The narrator, Bethia, is completely made up by Brooks, but there actually was a Native American man named Caleb who graduated from Harvard in the mid to late 17th century.
Bethia is the minister’s daughter on the island that is now known as Martha’s Vineyard, living with her father who is intent on building relationships between the new white settlers and the island’s Native American population, her older brother who wants to follow in his father’s foot steps, and a much younger sister. The novel begins as Bethia finds out that her father plans to have Caleb move in with them and tutor him in order to make him a bridge between the two communities as well as help with converting the local populace. Little does her father know that Bethia and Caleb have been friends for years despite conventions of the time that restrict their interactions based on both gender, and ethnic and cultural differences.