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. Anna sees it from many sides. As a villager, these are her people. She knows the dead and understand the reactions of the living. Mr. Mompellion and Elinor are outsiders and can only understand that these people have souls, but can’t fully know who they are as a person. At the same time, she does see what Mr. Mompellion wants for the village and that he is trying to keep people safe. He rarely sleeps so he can spend time with the sick and dying. He promises that no one will die alone and even though it’s making him weak, he travels from house to house tending his flock. Elinor works in her own ways to help. She learns more about healing and asks Anna to treat the sick with her. Anna, knowing she could easily be branded a witch, at first resists. She is a servant and does not feel comfortable in Elinor’s company. She’s also seen first hand what happens to healers when death is inevitable. When panic and grief set in, friends become strangers and anger turns to madness. Anna cannot take the chance that she will find herself on the outside.
Still, she respects Elinor and finds herself agreeing that they can help. While Mr. Mompellion prays and tries to keep the spirit strong, Anna and Elinor do what they can to keep the body healthy. Anna finds herself acting as midwife and confidant, returning to her cold and empty cottage at the end of the day. No matter how tired, she doesn’t sleep well knowing that her man and her babies are gone.
As the year drags on, the people begin to lose the sense of community that led them to make the decision to shut their borders. Neighbors turn on each other. Men find ways to profit from death. Ghosts begin whispering and windows, promising cures in exchange for money. People are angry and scared and watch as the population gets smaller and smaller.
But there are moments of hope and happiness. Anna and Elinor are able to secure a child’s future by fulfilling her claim on her family’s mine. Babies are born and survive. There are moments of peace and calm. People become ill, but live. Perhaps they have finally come to the beginning of the end of their exile.
And just as there starts to be glimmers of hope, madness nearly destroys everything. Faith has grown thin. In some places connections between villagers has become stronger as they carry the burden together. In others, people draw inward and know they are the only ones who can save themselves. People are distrustful. Nothing makes sense. Disaster comes to Mr. Mompellion and Elinor. Anna almost doesn’t survive.
I read this book over a week or so, but it’s one I could have read straight through. So many things happen that it could have become a bunch of tales told not that well, but Brooks is able to keep everything solidly around Anna and it works. It’s realistic to look at all the places she would be and why so many things would happen. She’s not just shut up in the rectory’s kitchen. She’s not just at home alone. She is tending the sick and trying to help those whose bodies are untouched. Being Elinor’s servant and then friend, she has access to many different houses. She sees madness and hope and having all the stories happening makes for a fulfilling book.
I especially liked the ending, although I have read that others did not. As I said at the start, Anna’s life is not one of change. She lives in a time where you die where you are born. You marry young, have babies and work to keep them alive. You remarry if your man dies and have more babies. You milk your cow and go to church. Your path is set.
In one moment, Anna has a chance for something different, and she grabs it. She could stay who and where and what she is. She could slip back into her old life. She could stay in the village and wait for the next husband and the next baby. But for Anna, she isn’t the same. Her time in the year of wonders has changed her in too many ways. She’s no longer a simple servant who falls back on social rules and norms. She’s seen too much and recognizes her own worth. She is given an opportunity and knows this is what she is meant to do. Some would say that this doesn’t fit in with her personality at all and the sudden shift in story is jarring and doesn’t make sense, but that’s the point. Nothing about the plague makes sense. Anna knows that she can become something different, so she does. She’s given a gift and makes it something even better.
There’s a lot in these pages, and I enjoyed the read. Madness, despair, faith, sex, murder, hope, agony… It’s all extremes and it’s very satisfying.