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Year of Wonders (Brooks)

The Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
Geraldine Brooks, 2002
Knopf Doubleday
336 pp.
ISBN-13:9780142001431


Summary 
When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna's eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition.

As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders."

Inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in the rugged hill country of England, Year of Wonders is a richly detailed evocation of a singular moment in history.

Written with stunning emotional intelligence and introducing "an inspiring heroine" (Wall Street Journal), Brooks blends love and learning, loss and renewal into a spellbinding and unforgettable read. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1955
Where—outside Sydney, Australia
Education—B.A., Sydney University; M.A. Columbia
   University (USA)
Awards—Hal Boyle Award, Overseas Press Club, 1990; Nita
   B. Kibble Award, 1997; Pulitizer Prize, 2006 (for March).
Currently—Virginia, USA


Geraldine Brooks is also the author of People of the Book (2008), Year of Wonders (2002), and the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. A former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Brooks lives in rural Virginia with her husband, author Tony Horwitz, and their son.

More
Brooks was born in 1955 and grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. She attended Sydney University and worked as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. As the Greg Shackleton Memorial Scholar she completed a Master's Degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City in 1983. Subsequently Brooks worked for the Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans—in 1990, for coverage of the Persian Gulf, Brooks (with Tony Horwitz) received the Overseas Press Club's Hal Boyle Award for "Best newspaper or wire service reporting from abroad".

Brooks was awarded a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University for 2006.

Brooks married fellow Pulitzer recipient, Tony Horwitz, in Tourette-sur-loup, France, in 1984. They have a son, Nathaniel, and divide their time between homes in Virginia, United States and Sydney, Australia.

Her first book, Nine Parts of Desire (1994), based on her experiences among the Muslim women of the Middle East, was an international bestseller, translated into 17 languages. Foreign Correspondence (1997), which won the Nita B. Kibble Award for women's writing, was a memoir and travel adventure about a childhood enriched by penpals from around the world, and her adult quest to find them.

Her first novel, Year of Wonders, published in 2001, is an international bestseller. Set in 1666, Year Of Wonders follows a young woman's battle to save her fellow villagers and her soul when the plague suddenly strikes the small Derbyshire village of Eyam.

Her second novel, March, was published in late February 2005. An historical novel set during the U.S. Civil War, it chronicles the war experiences of the March girls' absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. The parallel novel was generally well received by the critics. In December 2005 March was selected by the Washington Post as one of the five best fiction works published during the year. In April 2006, the book earned Brooks the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

March seems to have had its roots in Brooks' childhood. A copy of Little Women was given to Brooks when she was only ten years old, by her mother Gloria, a journalist and radio announcer. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
In 1666 the bubonic plague appeared in a small mountain village in England, where it took hold and spread. In a novel and courageous effort to keep the disease from extending beyond the village, the local minister and his congregation took a sacred oath to quarantine themselves until the illness was spent. Brooks has used this piece of history as a framework for her fictional account of what it might have been like to live through the event. Told by Anna Frith, the housemaid for the minister and his wife, this is a tale of devastation, grief, and madness as well as the attempts, both medicinal and spiritual, by the townspeople to combat the disease. The author has captured the various human responses to grief, fear, hopelessness, and exhaustion. Characters are well drawn, showing both the good and evil sides of human nature. Compelling and believable, the unabridged version is masterfully read by Josephine Bailey; the abridged set is equally well narrated by Stina Nielsen. Recommended. —Joanna M. Burkhardt, Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Univ. of Rhode Island, Providence
Library Journal


Painstaking re-creation of 17th-century England, swallowed by over-the-top melodramatics: a wildly uneven first novel by an Australian-born journalist. The Year of the title is 1665: the date of the devastating bubonic epidemic chronicled in Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. Brooks's tale, framed by reveries set a year and a half after the plague burns itself out (in "Leaf-Fall, 1666"), is narrated by Anna Frith, an earnest and highly intelligent young widow who buries her own multiple bereavements (first her gentle husband, later their two small sons) in work, aiding her (unnamed) village rector's wife in treating the sick with medicinal herbs and traditional cures. Brooks is at her best in lyrical, precise descriptions of country landscapes and village customs, and makes something very appealing and (initially) quite credible out of Anna's wary hunger for learning and innate charitable kindness. But the novel goes awry when the panic of contagion isolates her village from neighboring hamlets, a forthright young woman and her distracted aunt are accused of witchcraft and hunted down, and Anna's drunken, violent father, who profits as a gravedigger for hire, resorts to providing corpses that will require his services. The excesses continue, as Anna's stepmother, crazed with grief, seeks vengeance against rector Michael Mompellion and his saintly wife (and Anna's mentor and soulmate) Elinor, and rise to a feverish pitch when Anna, having found a new innocent victim to nurture and raise, offends the powerful Bradford family and must flee to safety—ending up (in a borderline-risible Epilogue) in North Africa in the sanctuary of a kindly "Bey's" harem. It's all more thana bit much: Thomas Hardy crossed with Erskine Caldwell, with more than a whiff of Jane Eyre in Anna's conflicted devotion to the brooding, Mr. Rochester-like Mompellion. In between the more hysterical moments, Brooks writes quite beautifully. But Year of Wonders was a mistake.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. All of the characters in this novel have their failings and as a result they are all fully human. Are you surprised by the secrets Elinor and Michael Mompellion each reveal to Anna about their marriage? How do they change your feelings about each character? Do they make either seem weaker in a way?

2. The Bradford family bears the brunt of Mompellion's rage when they leave town to save themselves. However, weren't they only doing what every other noble family did in those days: run because they had the means to run? Setting aside the events near the end of the novel (which make it clear that one would be hard-pressed to find a redeeming quality in any of them), can you really blame the Bradfords for running?

3. How much of Mompellion's push for the quarantine had to do with the secrets he shared with Elinor? Did his own dark side and self-loathing push him to sacrifice the town or was he really acting out of everyone's best interests?

4, Keeping in mind that this story takes place a good twenty-five years before the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, what is the role of the Gowdie women in the novel? What is it about these women that drives their neighbors to murderous rage? How does their nonconformity lead to their becoming scapegoats?

5. How would you explain Anna's mental and spiritual unraveling? What are the pivotal experiences leading up to her breakdown and her eventual rebirth?

6. Discuss the feminist undertones of the story. How does each female character—Anna, Elinor, the Gowdies, and even Anna's stepmother—exhibit strengths that the male characters do not?

7. In a story where the outcome is already known from the very beginning—most of the villagers will die—discuss the ways in which the author manages to create suspense.

8. The author creates an incredible sense of time and place with richly textured language and thoughtful details—of both the ordinary (everyday life in Eyam) and the extraordinary (the gruesome deaths of the villagers). Discuss some of the most vivid images and their importance to the story and to your own experience reading it.

9. Can we relate the story of this town's extraordinary sacrifice to our own time? Is it unrealistic to expect a village facing a similar threat to make the same decision nowadays? What lessons might we learn from the villagers of Eyam?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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