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Year of Wonders
Geraldine Brooks

 
Introduction

"God's Wrath Made Manifest"?

The 1600s marked both the dawn of modern medicine and the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment all over Europe. In England, these years also brought the Restoration—a revolution in every aspect of life against Oliver Cromwell's Puritanism. English physicians charted the circulatory system, and the invention of the compound microscope and identification of bacteria were together about to begin unraveling the mystery of infectious disease. In 1662, King Charles established the Royal Society in order to promote the study of natural science. The world was changing rapidly, and its central focus shifted from God to man.

In 1665, in the remote English village of Eyam—a small and closely knit community of lead miners and shepherds, cobblers and weavers—the bubonic plague ("The Black Death") has taken the town hostage both literally and figuratively. In a decision brought about by Michael Mompellion, the radical but much-admired town minister, the villagers of Eyam quarantine themselves in their "wide green prison" and vow to suffer the scourge alone. Believing that the plague is God's judgment on their sinful world, most of the devoutly Christian villagers beg forgiveness and look for ways to assuage God's ire—the most puritanical take up self-flagellation in an attempt to cleanse themselves. Almost completely cut off from the outside world (save for the ingenious "boundary stone"), and after panic has well and truly set in, the villagers turn on one another. In episodes that illustrate both the best of human nature (ministering to the sick) and the worst (a gravedigger profiteering from the dead), the townspeople grapple with their grief and fear. It is up to the story's heroine—a young, widowed housemaid named Anna Frith—to raise the existential questions about the origins of the plague, and she therefore becomes the embodiment of the conflict at the center of the novel: God versus Nature.

It came to me then that we, all of us, spent a very great deal of time pondering these questions that, in the end, we could not answer. If we balanced the time we spent contemplating God, and why He afflicted us, with more thought as to how the Plague spread and poisoned our blood, then we might come nearer to saving our lives. While these thoughts were vexing, they brought with them also a chink of light. For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about some grand celestial design that had to be completed before the disease would abate. We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village of sinners or a host of saints.

After suffering the death of her suitor and her two children, and despite her own spiritual beliefs and adoration for the rector and his wife, Anna boldly rejects the idea that the pestilence is a call for repentance. And in a time of such turmoil, she shrugs off the social and religious mores that would keep a weaker woman in her place. With the knowledge about herbal remedies that she has gleaned from the village herbalists Mem and Anys Gowdie, and the support and tutelage of her patroness, Elinor Mompellion, Anna emerges more powerful and self-confident than before. At the end of the novel, it is clear she has become stronger than even Michael Mompellion, the town's figurehead and religious rock. Anna's questions—and her role as a village healer—will eventually lead her to her true calling. Caught up in the struggle between science and religion, Anna's dilemma mirrors that of the world in her time. Ultimately she confesses: "I cannot say that I have faith anymore. Hope, perhaps. We have agreed that it will do for now."

 

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