It is fascinating to trace the domino effect caused by something so seemingly small and insignificant as a bolt of cloth. In Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks, this bolt spreads misery in the form of the bubonic plague from London to a small, remote English village in 1666. Anna Frith, a young widow who has already seen her share of misfortune, is spared the fatal boils while all around her, family, friends, and neighbors succumb to the terrible disease.
The town’s rector, Michael Mompellion, convinces the town to sequester itself for the good of the area. Most village folk listen, with the exception of the wealthiest family who flee without regard to passing on contagion. With Mompellion’s wife, Elinor, Anna learns about the art of healing and administers to the dying around her. However, as their circumstances become more dire, the suffering village folk turn to witch hunts, self-flagellation, and demonic charms for relief.
While the historical details are fascinating, what really makes this book compelling is its character study of people under enormous strain and facing terrible sorrow. The noble ministrations of Elinor and Anna are contrasted with the self-serving howls of an angry mob, desperate to inflict pain. Brooks’ writing is vivid, with great attention to establishing a believable historical scene.