Sunday, May 22, 2016

YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks

I can hardly imagine a situation more depressing than a town quarantining itself due to an outbreak of bubonic plague.  Geraldine Brooks imagines what life was like in this real-life English village in the 1600s.  Her protagonist is Anna Frith, who works as a housekeeper in the home of the town’s compassionate minister and his wife, Elinor.  Anna has lost her husband in a mining accident and her two children to the plague, but she forges on, doing what she can to protect the living and administer to the sick and dying.  She and Elinor become companions in their quest to save as many people as they can and to alleviate suffering.  When the going gets tough, though, many residents become hysterical, looking for and punishing scapegoats, trying to appease what they perceive as a vengeful God that has burdened them with this tragedy.  People in a panic tend to behave badly, and that is certainly the case here.  I wanted to like this book, and I did feel invested in the characters, particularly Anna, but how much black death and human stupidity can one reader take?  Plus, I don’t advise becoming attached to any character, because by the time Elinor and Anna start drawing some conclusions about how the infection is being spread, many denizens have already expired, and not necessarily directly from the plague.  I would say that this book is about how dire circumstances change people—either inspiring them to perform feats of heroism or reducing them to murderers whose sanity has been supplanted by superstition.  Science and medicine may have made great strides in the last three centuries, but the ugliness in human nature hasn’t changed at all.

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