Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

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An unforgettable tale of a brave young woman during the plague in 17th century England from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March and The Secret Chord coming from Viking in October 2015 

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 ...

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An unforgettable tale of a brave young woman during the plague in 17th century England from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March and The Secret Chord coming from Viking in October 2015 

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" (The Wall Street Journal), Brooks blends love and learning, loss and renewal into a spellbinding and unforgettable read.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks chronicles life in a tiny English village in the year 1666. What makes this "year of wonders" so fascinating is that it was the year in which an outbreak of bubonic plague struck England. Brooks's novel is based on the historical village of Eyam in the Pennine Mountains, whose denizens were challenged by their local vicar to quarantine themselves to avoid further spread of the disease throughout the countryside. As the villagers doom themselves to near-eradication (two-thirds of them will perish before year's end), the story raises compelling questions about human nature.

The harrowing story of these brave souls is recounted by one Anna Frith, a maid in the charismatic vicar's household. Having watched helplessly as her own family succumbs one by one to the virulent plague, Anna is utterly devoted to the minister's teachings; but as the virus begins to recede, she begins to doubt his entreaty. Like many great historical novels, Year of Wonders will leave readers mulling over its essential questions long after they've finished the book. (Fall 2001 Selection)

From the Publisher
"The novel glitters . . . A deep imaginative engagement with how people are changed by catastrophe." —The New Yorker

"Year of Wonders is a vividly imagined and strangely consoling tale of hope in a time of despair." —O, The Oprah Magazine

"Brooks proves a gifted storyteller as she subtly reveals how ignorance, hatred and mistrust can be as deadly as any virus. . . . Year of Wonders is itself a wonder." —People

"A glimpse into the strangeness of history that simultaneously enables us to see a reflection of ourselves." —The New York Times Book Review

"Elegant and engaging." —Arthur Golden

"Year of Wonders has it all: strong characters, a trememdous sense of time and place, a clearly defined heroine and a dastardly villain." —The Denver Post

Arthur Golden
...leaves us with the memory of vivid characters struggling in timeless human ways with the hardships confronting them....An engaging story.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Brooks's title is based on the actual lead-mining village of Eyam, Derbyshire, whose inhabitants voluntarily quarantined themselves for a year when stricken with Bubonic Plague in 1665-1666. Anna Frith is widowed at 18 by a mining accident and is the mother of two young boys. Through her recollections, readers live through the year as her endurance and abilities are sorely tested. Anna works for the new young minister's wife, who teaches her to read and becomes more of a companion than a mistress. At her employers' suggestion, Anna takes in a boarder to help meet expenses. The man is a tailor and when a shipment of fabrics, apparently flea infested, is delivered from London-the plague is suddenly upon them. The minister convinces his flock to make the supreme sacrifice and arranges for food and supplies to be delivered to the outskirts of the hamlet. The story is a portrait of the best and worst in people faced with sorrow, terror, and death. Some succumb to madness, others display cowardice and hysteria, and a few look for solutions in murder or self-mutilation. Through it all, however, Anna grows in strength, abilities, and understanding as she faces the loss of her children, her friends, and her innocence, and takes on the tasks of an ever-dwindling populace. This is an excellently portrayed study of the wonder of human courage.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142001431
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/30/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 60,418
  • Lexile: 1080L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the author of four novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning March and the international bestsellers Caleb's Crossing, People of the Book, and Year of Wonders. She has also written the acclaimed nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. Her most recent novel, Caleb's Crossing, was the winner of the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Christianity Today Book award, and was a finalist for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction. Born and raised in Australia, she lives on Martha's Vineyard with her husband, the author Tony Horwitz.


Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney and attended Bethlehem College Ashfield and the University of Sydney. She worked as a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a feature writer with a special interest in environmental issues.

In 1982 she won the Greg Shackleton Australian News Correspondents scholarship to the journalism master's program at Columbia University in New York City. Later she worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans.

Her first novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague was an international bestseller. In 2006, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for March, a story that imagines the Civil War experiences of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's beloved classic Little Women. She has also written nonfiction, including Foreign Correspondence, an award-winning memoir about her search for the international penpals who enriched her childhood.

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Read an Excerpt

Year of Wonders, Chapter One

Apple-picking Time

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there'd be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

They brought the apples yesterday, a cartload for the rectory cellar. Late pickings, of course: I saw brown spots on more than a few. I had words with the carter over it, but he told me we were lucky to get as good as we got, and I suppose it's true enough. There are so few people to do the picking. So few people to do anything. And those of us who are left walk around as if we're half asleep. We are all so tired.

I took an apple that was crisp and good and sliced it, thin as paper, and carried it into that dim room where he sits, still and silent. His hand is on the Bible, but he never opens it. Not anymore. I asked him if he'd like me to read it to him. He turned his head to look at me, and I started. It was the first time he'd looked at me in days. I'd forgotten what his eyes could do-what they could make us do-when he stared down from the pulpit and held us, one by one, in his gaze. His eyes are the same, but his face has altered so, drawn and haggard, each line etched deep. When he came here, just three years since, the whole village made a jest of his youthful looks and laughed at the idea of being preached at by such a pup. If they saw him now, they would not laugh, even if they could remember how to do so.

"You cannot read, Anna."

"To be sure, I can, Rector. Mrs. Mompellion taught me."

He winced and turned away as I mentioned her, and instantly I regretted it. He does not trouble to bind his hair these days, and from where I stood the long, dark fall of it hid his face, so that I could not read his expression. But his voice, when he spoke again, was composed enough. "Did she so? Did she so?" he muttered. "Well, then, perhaps one day I'll hear you and see what kind of a job she made of it. But not today, thank you, Anna. Not today. That will be all."

A servant has no right to stay, once she's dismissed. But I did stay, plumping the pillow, placing a shawl. He won't let me lay a fire. He won't let me give him even that little bit of comfort. Finally, when I'd run out of things to pretend to do, I left him.

In the kitchen, I chose a couple of the spotted apples I'd culled from the buckets and walked out to the stables. The courtyard hadn't been swept in a sennight. It smelled of rotting straw and horse piss. I had to hitch up my skirt to keep it off the muck. Before I was halfway across, I could hear the thud of his horse's rump as he turned and strutted in his confinement, gouging clefts into the floor of the stall. There's no one strong or skilled enough now to handle him.

The stable boy, whose job it was to keep the courtyard raked, was asleep on the floor of the tack room. He jumped when he saw me, making a great show of searching for the snath that had slipped from his hand when he'd dozed off. The sight of the scythe blade still upon his workbench vexed me, for I'd asked him to mend it long since, and the timothy now was naught but blown seed head and no longer worth the cutting. I was set to scold him about this, and about the filth outside, but his poor face, so pinched and exhausted, made me swallow the words.

Dust motes sparkled in the sudden shaft of sunlight as I opened the stable door. The horse stopped his pawing, holding one hoof aloft and blinking in the unfamiliar glare. Then he reared up on his muscled haunches and punched the air, saying, as plainly as he could, "If you aren't him, get out of here." Although I don't know when a brush was last laid on him, his coat still gleamed like bronze where the light touched it. When Mr. Mompellion had arrived here on this horse, the common talk had been that such a fine stallion was no fit steed for a priest. And people liked not to hear the rector calling him Anteros, after one of the old Puritans told them it was the name of a pagan idol. When I made so bold as to ask Mr. Mompellion about it, he had only laughed and said that even Puritans should recall that pagans, too, are children of God and their stories part of His creation.

I stood with my back pressed against the stall, talking gently to the great horse. "Ah, I'm so sorry you're cramped up in here all day. I brought you a small something." Slowly, I reached into the pocket of my pinafore and held out an apple. He turned his massive head a little, showing me the white of one liquid eye. I kept prattling, softly, as I used to with the children when they were scared or hurt. "You like apples. I know you do. Go on, then, and have it." He pawed the ground again, but with less conviction. Slowly, his nostrils flaring as he studied the scent of the apple, and of me, he stretched his broad neck toward me. His mouth was soft as a glove, and warm, as it brushed my hand, taking the apple in a single bite. As I reached into my pocket for the second one, he tossed his head and the apple juice sprayed. He was up now, angrily boxing the air, and I knew I'd lost the moment. I dropped the other apple on the floor of the stall and slid out quickly, resting my back against the closed door, wiping a string of horse spittle from my face. The stable boy slid his eyes at me and went silently on with his mending.

Well, I thought, it's easier to bring a small comfort to that poor beast than it is to his master. When I came back into the house, I could hear the rector out of his chair, pacing. The rectory floors are old and thin, and I could follow his steps by the creak of the boards. Up and back he walked, up and back, up and back. If only I could get him downstairs, to do his pacing in the garden. But once, when I suggested it, he looked as if I'd proposed something as ambitious as a trek up the White Peak. When I went to fetch his plate, the apple slices were all there, untouched, turning brown. Tomorrow, I'll start to work with the cider press. He'll take a drink without noticing sometimes, even when I can't get him to eat anything. And it's no use letting a cellar full of fruit go bad. If there's one thing I can't stand anymore, it's the scent of a rotting apple.
• *

At day's end, when I leave the rectory for home, I prefer to walk through the orchard on the hill rather than go by the road and risk meeting people. After all we've been through together, it's just not possible to pass with a polite, "Good night t'ye." And yet I haven't the strength for more. Sometimes, not often, the orchard can bring back better times to me. These memories of happiness are fleeting things, reflections in a stream, glimpsed all broken for a second and then swept away in the current of grief that is our life now. I can't say that I ever feel what it felt like then, when I was happy. But sometimes something will touch the place where that feeling was, a touch as slight and swift as the brush of a moth's wing in the dark.

In the orchard of a summer night, if I close my eyes, I can hear the small voices of children: whispers and laughter, running feet and rustling leaves. Come this time of year, it's Sam that I think of-strong Sam Frith grabbing me around the waist and lifting me into the low, curved branch of a gnarly, old tree. I was just fifteen. "Marry me," he said. And why wouldn't I? My father's croft had ever been a joyless place. My father loved a pot better than he loved his children, though he kept on getting them, year passing year. To my stepmother, Aphra, I was always a pair of hands before I was a person, someone to toil after her babies. Yet it was she who spoke up for me, and it was her words that swayed my father to give his assent. In his eyes I was but a child still, too young to be handfasted. "Open your eyes, husband, and look at her," said Aphra. "You're the only man in the village who doesn't. Better she be wedded early to Frith than bedded untimely by some youth with a prick more upright than his morals."

Sam Frith was a miner with his own good lead seam to work. He had a fine small cottage and no children from a first wife who'd died. It did not take him long to give me children. Two sons in three years. Three good years. I should say, for there are many now too young to remember it, that it was not a time when we were raised up thinking to be happy. The Puritans, who are few amongst us now, and sorely pressed, had the running of this village then. It was their sermons we grew up listening to in a church bare of adornment, their notions of what was heathenish that hushed the Sabbath and quieted the church bells, that took the ale from the tavern and the lace from the dresses, the ribands from the Maypole and the laughter out of the public lanes. So the happiness I got from my sons, and from the life that Sam provided, burst on me as sudden as the first spring thaw. When it all turned to hardship and bleakness again, I was not surprised. I went calmly to the door that terrible night with the torches smoking and the voices yelling and the men with their faces all black so that they looked headless in the dark. The orchard can bring back that night, too, if I let my mind linger there. I stood in the doorway with the baby in my arms, watching the torches bobbing and weaving crazy lines of light through the trees. "Walk slow," I whispered. "Walk slow, because it won't be true until I hear the words." And they did walk slow, trudging up that little hill as if it were a mountain. But slow as they came, in the end they arrived, jostling and shuffling. They pushed the biggest one, Sam's friend, out in front. There was a mush of rotten apple on his boot. Funny thing to notice, but I suppose I was looking down so that I wouldn't have to look into his face.

They were four days digging out Sam's body. They took it straight to the sexton's instead of bringing it home to me. They tried to keep me from it, but I wouldn't be kept. I would do that last thing for him. She knew. "Tell them to let her go to him," Elinor Mompellion said to the rector in that gentle voice of hers. Once she spoke, it was over. She so rarely asked anything of him. And once Michael Mompellion nodded, they parted, those big men, moving aside and letting me through.

To be sure, there wasn't much there that was him. But what there was, I tended. That was two years ago. Since then, I've tended so many bodies, people I loved and people I barely knew. But Sam's was the first. I bathed him with the soap he liked, because he said it smelled of the children. Poor slow Sam. He never quite realized that it was the children who smelled of the soap. I washed them in it every night before he came home. I made it with heather blooms, a much gentler soap than the one I made for him. His soap was almost all grit and lye. It had to be, to scrape that paste of sweat and soil from his skin. He would bury his poor tired face in the babies' hair and breathe the fresh scent of them. It was the closest he got to the airy hillsides. Down in the mine at daybreak, out again after sundown. A life in the dark. And a death there, too.

And now it is Elinor Mompellion's Michael who sits all day in the dark, with the shutters closed. And I try to serve him, although sometimes I feel that I'm tending just another in that long procession of dead. But I do it. I do it for her. I tell myself I do it for her. Why else would I do it, after all?

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
In the summer of 1990, my husband, Tony Horwitz, and I were based in London, working as foreign correspondents for The Wall Street Journal. While I went off to cover harrowing conflicts in the Middle East, Tony ranged around the English countryside, looking into earthshaking issues such as why so many towns had silly names like Great Snoring, North Piddle, and Upperup.

"You should do something about the footpath wars," I suggested one gray morning.

"Sidewalks? That sounds boring," he replied.

"No, not sidewalks, footpaths," I said, explaining that English tradition allowed people to ramble all over private property, so long as they kept to paths agreed on in ancient times. An article in that morning's paper reported that some landowners were getting tired of this and had started planting crops or building fences over the footpaths, fences that militant ramblers -- a description I found charmingly oxymoronic -- then promptly tore down.

A week or so later, we were rambling ourselves, among the gritstone villages of the Peak District in England's rugged mountain spine. Tony had interviewed farmers and hikers, and now we were free to explore on our own.

A book, Ernest Hemingway once noted, may come out of something a writer is lucky enough to overhear, or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life. On that beautiful June day, my book came out of looking up and seeing a finger post to a village called Eyam, with a note beneath: "Plague Village." To me, this was too intriguing to bypass, and so we went there. In the parish church was set out the story of how bubonic plague had arrived in Eyam in 1665; how the villagers had taken a heroic decision to quarantine themselves, and how two-thirds of them had died in the following year.

I did not quit my job that day and run off to a garret to write a novel. It was four more years before I left journalism and a further four, in which I wrote two books of nonfiction, before I found the courage to slip the surly bonds of fact.

But finally, in 1999, I sat down and began to imagine what it might have been like to be a young woman in Eyam in that year of 1666 -- that year of wonders, when witches were still being tried for their lives even as Isaac Newton was laying the foundations of modern scientific thought.

Sometimes, I would look up from my writing, through the wavy old glass of my study window, and forget for an instant whether the apple orchard I was looking at was here, in Virginia, or there, in Eyam, climbing the green hill behind Anna's cottage. I began to speak in the old Derbyshire dialect words that my characters used.

"Take an umbrella, it's siling down out there," I'd say to Tony. "And wear your gloves or your hands will be cluzened."

Since he has read the book -- many times, in draft and galley -- he has learned the meaning of those words. And all because, a decade ago, he discovered that a footpath wasn't a sidewalk. (Geraldine Brooks)

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Reading Group Guide


"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."


Geraldine Brooks is the author of two acclaimed works of nonfiction, the bestselling Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Foreign Correspondence: A Penpal's Journey from Down Under to All Over. She is also a former war correspondent whose writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal,New York Times, and Washington Post.


In your afterword, you describe chancing upon Eyam and its terrible history while living in England in 1990. Can you tell us a bit about your research—for instance, what you uncovered about the townspeople and perhaps didn't include in the novel for whatever reason? What about the difficulties of writing a story that blends fiction with historical fact, especially given your journalistic, just-the-facts background?

The written record of what happened in Eyam during the plague year is scant. Apart from three letters by the rector, no narrative account from the year itself actually exists. The "histories" that purport to record the facts were actually written many years later, and historians have found inconsistencies that cast doubt on their accuracy. Therefore, there was no way to write a satisfying nonfiction narrative. And, since the story had taken root in my imagination, the only way to indulge my impulse to tell it was to take the leap into fiction. The factual basis of the story was actually very helpful to me: it was like having the framing of the house already erected—I could see the shape from the beginning. The things I decided not to use from the anecdotal accounts passed down over time were those things that would have seemed most like implausible inventions. For example, a young couple is said to have lived in the church around the plague time, seeking sanctuary from the law. The couple had been married by accident, having drunkenly taken part in a mock wedding at a tavern that was later deemed to have the force of law and sacrament. Unfortunately, the groom was already engaged to another woman. She, enraged, sought his arrest for breach of promise. The couple apparently lived a reasonable life in the church, assisted by sympathetic villagers. This story, although reasonably well substantiated, just seemed too odd to weave into my novel.

You describe the man on whom Michael Mompellion was based, William Mompesson, as "heroic and saintly" and yet you also believe that Mompesson and his wife sent their two children away before quarantining the town. How do you justify your description of the real man? And do you think this knowledge influenced your depiction of the "darker side" of the Mompellion character?

One of the fictional liberties I took with the story was a certain compression of timeframe. The plague was actually in the village for many weeks before the quarantine was agreed upon. Some people decided to send their children away into the care of relatives: there was nothing unethical in the Mompessons also choosing to do so. It was only as the epidemic really took hold that Mompesson saw the fearful virulence of the disease and became concerned about the consequences of its spread. There is nothing in the factual record to suggest that he behaved other than honorably throughout the village's terrible ordeal. However, in trying to imagine him—a young man, not long out of school, not long in a village where most of the Puritan-leaning population did not share his religious views, yet still persuasive enough to bring people to such a momentous choice—I envisioned a man of powerful conviction and charisma. Such personalities are sometimes governed by unwholesome motivations, such as the belief that they are God's infallible instruments. They can be dangerous, even deadly.

Do you believe Anna is an unlikely heroine, given the rigid class structures of her time and her sex? Why did you choose to tell this story from Anna's point of view? Did your nonfiction-and in particular your book Nine Parts of Desire, which deals with the lives of Muslim women—influence your decision?

I wanted a narrator who was part of the ordinary life of the village, but also had access to the gentry, the decision-makers. Since I knew that the real rector had a maid who survived the plague, she seemed the obvious choice. Anna's character and the changes it undergoes were suggested to me by the lives of women I had met during my years as a reporter in the Middle East and Africa—women who had lived lives that were highly circumscribed and restricted, until thrown into sudden turmoil by a crisis such as war or famine. These women would suddenly find themselves having to step out of their old roles and assume vastly challenging responsibilities. I saw women who had traveled enormous personal distances—traditional village women in Eritrea who became platoon leaders in the country's independence war; Kurdish women who led their families to safety over mined mountain passes after the failure of their uprising against Saddam Hussein. If those women could change and grow so remarkably, I reasoned that Anna could, too. And remember that the Restoration was a very fluid time. All the ancient certainties—the monarchy, the Church—had been challenged within these people's lifetime. They had lived through regicide, revolution, civil war. Change was their norm. In the 1660s, women were appearing on the stage for the first time, were assuming influential roles in the Restoration court. Also, life in the villages was much less rigid and restrictive than we often imagine. I read a lot of sermons while researching the novel, and it struck me that the amount of hectoring from the pulpit on the proper behavior of women probably reflected a widely held view that a lot of "improper" behavior was going on.

In light of your research, can you put into perspective just how extraordinary the villagers' decision to quarantine themselves was? What was happening in London, for example, at the same time?

The unique thing about Eyam's quarantine was that it was voluntary. I was able to find no other examples of such communal self-sacrifice. In London, Samuel Pepys writes in his journal of the terrible treatment meted out to plague victims: "We are become as cruel as dogs one to another." There, the houses of plague victims were sealed and guarded, locking in the well with the ill, with no one to bring food, water, or comfort of any kind. Pepys writes that you could hear the cries of the afflicted coming from the houses, which were marked with large red crosses and the words "God Have Mercy."

In a piece published in The Washington Post after the September 11, 2001, attacks, you wrote: "Whether we also shall one day look back upon this year of flames, germs and war as a 'year of wonders' will depend, perhaps, on how many are able—like the passengers on United Flight 93 or the firefighters of New York City—to match the courageous self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam." Will you discuss the parallels you have drawn here?

Eyam is a story of ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of others. September 11, 2001, revealed heroism in ordinary people who might have gone through their lives never called upon to demonstrate the extent of their courage. Sadly, it also revealed a blind thirst for revenge that led to the murders of a Muslim, a Sikh, and an Egyptian Copt. I have imagined this same instinct to turn on and blame "the other" in the lynching of the Gowdies. Love, hate, fear. The desire to live and to see your children live. Are these things different on a beautiful autumn morning in a twenty-first-century city than they were in an isolated seventeenth-century village? I don't think so. One thing I believe completely is that the human heart remains the human heart, no matter how our material circumstances change as we move together through time.


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

Average Rating 4
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 264 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Really Wanted TO Love This Book

    I went into this read really wanting to love it since I've heard such great reviews. While there were aspects I greatly appreciated, I was sorely disappointed. The main reason lies in the plausibility of a multitude of circumstances. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the concept of suspension of disbelief. However, for me, I tolerate it less in historical fiction than other genres.

    Inspired by actual events that occured when residents of Eyam Derbyshire voluntarily quarantined themselves in response to an outbreak of The Plague, Brooks allows the full range of human responses to play out. Some residents see the outbreak as a punishment from God and commit to extreme penitence such as self flagellation, others turn on their neighbors, others collapse under their own greed, and some focus on service.

    There are some things with which Brooks does an excellent job. Within a fairly short novel, Brooks aptly develops rich characters that truly reflects human nature. Her protagonists have flaws. That was refreshing, particularly when contrasted with their extreme heroic actions. The story itself is well developed, and she is able to portray the emotions of the characters in a vivid manner.

    Where she lost me was in the intuitive knowledge that Anna is imbued with. It just really irritated me. I couldn't figure out why Anna had not discovered a cure for The Plague. Further, the historical context for some of the medical knowledge seems a bit stretched by about 100 years.

    12 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 30, 2008

    One of the best reads ever!!!

    I just this moment finished reading Year of Wonder. Anytime I find myself talking to the pages as if they would me in reply I know it¿s a great read. I was elated to get to the end as the ending was not at all what I expected. As a matter of fact I scarcely imagined Anna & Michael¿s rendezvous, though I hoped for it once Elinor was gone. <BR/><BR/>The story is fluid & engaging & it drew me in like a friend confessing a her truth to me in confidence. I am glad that I generally choose what I read based on the way the cover looks. Year of Wonder like the painting on the cover is a sensual, full-bodied tale chocked full of historical references & language (including idioms that I had to research)that made the story most believable. I was swept into the story & enjoyed it immensely. I plan to add this to my own library so that I may read it again.<BR/><BR/>I highly recommend the book to anyone - man or woman, who has a taste for brilliant literary storytelling.

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Read

    I am innately suspicious of any historical novel with a woman on the cover. If you are looking for the sort of escapism found in a bodice ripper you are in for a disappointment. It is a well researched literary novel that only sags into sappy sentimentality a few times towards the end. Women are the majority of literary fiction readers. Yet 'Year of Wonders' escapes being a classic 'woman's' novel despite the fact that the main protagonist is a strong woman. Because of its interesting historical detail and plot it may even be of interest to some very enlightened men. It reminded me of Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible' and some of the other fiction about the Salem witch hunt. It seems like a very good choice for book clubs as it raises some good questions. Enjoy.

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 23, 2010

    "Sample" is a waste of space

    You get 15 pages to sample the book. After the copyright page, Table of Contents, exaustive pages of "reviews", you get a whoping 1 or 2 paragraphs of the story to read.

    7 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Surprise Pleasure!

    A friend in book club suggested this to me. I was a little hesitant, having heard bad things about _March_, but am SO glad I read it! This book is phenomenal, beautiful, thought-provoking, and rich in detail. In spite of its subject matter (a village whose citizens voluntarily place themselves in quarantine to save those living near them from the Plague, which has infested their numbers), this book highlights the beauty (and depravity) of humanity, proving that what matters is how to meet the challenges that come before us. The details of life in a rural English village of the 1600s are exquisite, and the author does a fantastic job of walking the thin line between enough sadness to communicate the situation and so much sadness you can't help but tune out. I highly recommend this!

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Thought provoking

    We read this in our book club, which has as many men as women. All enjoyed it and commented on the fine writing by Brooks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her next book.
    "Year of Wonders" is inspired by one real-life 17th century town's unusual and noble response (self-quarantine) to the appearance of bubonic plague within the town. Interesting in itself, the book also raises issues for today, when pandemics still threaten.
    A useful companion book to Thomas Mullen's "The Last Town on Earth," also history-based, about an opposite response to a similar dilemma (in this case, the Spanish flue pandemic of this century). See also, Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year" and Camus's "The Plague" ("La Peste").
    Altogether, a very meaty and contemporary subject. Highly recommended!

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2013

    Year of Wonders

    To start I got this book because I was looking forward to look into the lives of a tiny town struck by the horrible "black" plauge that killed a ton of people back in the 1600s. I really liked the idea of this book and I grew to love the main character Anna Frith. While she was a simple lower class citizen she learned a lot of things. One of them was being a midwife, a coal miner and most importantly a strong female lead who discovers herself. I really liked most of this books dramatics and story line.

    So the reason I rated it so poorly is because it was very hard to get into. In the beginning it jumped from past to future at a drop of the hat. It had several characters a couple of them with similar names so it was hard to keep everyone straight (granted the author needed to kill off quite a few to mesh with the "black death") When I finally got to the 100th page i started to get into the story and it flowed a lot more. Then the end was good, but the epiloge was a little confusing.

    Honestly I would not recommend this book it was very dry and did not grab my interest.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    Amazing Book

    After reading March and People of the Book by Geraldize Brooks, I had to read her first novel, Year of Wonders. She is now one of my favorite authors. Her ability to portray the realities of life during the the 17th century and the difficulties faced by the characters was fascinating. I highly recommend this to anyone, but especially those who like to learn about history.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 31, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A Young Maid's Story of Quarantine, Love, and the Plague

    A moving portrait of a woman from 1666 in a London town in which the town purposely quarantines themselves to ensure that the Plague does not extend and pass from their town to others. I enjoy Geraldine Brooks' work, particularly "People of the Book," and I would call this a close second to that work. Again, the author has blended fictional and actual events of a town in London, and has written the book from the perspective of a maid that served the town's minister through the quarantine. A simple reference of the maid in an actual letter from the actual minister of the town that quarantined themselves is what propelled the author to begin thinking about what life must have been like for this woman, and she creates a thorough account of that one year from this maid's eyes, drawing on events and actions that are documented from the actual town. I struggled only with the language of the way it was written, as it was written in the same speech as what someone from that time would speak as and write, but once you get used to it, you do not notice it again. It is a moving story, one that you cannot put down.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2012

    Highly recommended, definite great, flowing read!

    Great, beatifully written novel. I've read it multiple times and each time I catch a new part of a beautiful decription of the time, the characters and the lives the people lived in such a difficult time. The story is actually particially taken from true happenings in England during that time. And, the author captured it amazingly.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 8, 2009

    Wonderful historical novel

    This really gave me a good idea what it was like with the plague. And the ending was not at all what I expected which if great for me. I liked it more that her prize winning novel "March" but "March" was good also

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2009

    Great thought provoking book

    If you like historical fiction this is a great choice. Not just another romantic history of some famous figure. This book really makes you grateful that you live in this day and age.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2008

    True, the end was kind of hokey...

    but this book was still awesome. I loved the description and I think that Geraldine Brooks is truly talented and I wish she would write more historical fiction. I love Anna as well as a lot of other characters. This was thought-provoking and haunting at the same time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    In this riveting weave of many strands, we learn of the devastat

    In this riveting weave of many strands, we learn of the devastation of the plague in a small English town the author fictionalizes. Consider some of the threads: the plight of Anna, daughter of an alcoholic whose addiction prioritizes his needs over his child's well-being. Anna does not become a victim. Instead, she grows up to become a fine woman who embraces literacy as a result of the kindness of Elinor, the town minister's wife. The minister however, labours under the delusion that his loving God will reward him more fully one day for denying himself and his wife the natural physical expression of their love for each other. Shades of religious masochism are detailed well, and of course it is no wonder that this misguided minister feels unbearable attraction to Anna. I learned a great deal about the equalized spread of the plague across social borders and the courage of wonderful people who became more wonderful while the ignorant and superstitious found good witches to blame for illness they could not understand. The ending of this story seems a fitting one, given the life-long married experience of Elinor, the good wife of the minister, who also spends her life doing good works while remaining celibate and unloved. Some historians contend that the results of the plague are still with us. (In one study, I learned that sneezing, a sign/symptom of the plague, was responded to with the words, 'God be with you'. Over the decades, this expression of sympathy for the afflicted was refined to our present word of 'good bye'.) A great read. Yes, the ending was a surprise, but a brilliant one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 5, 2014

    Anna is quite the woman, I am not sure I could bear the loss of

    Anna is quite the woman, I am not sure I could bear the loss of my children (heaven forbid) if they died such a horrible death, but Anna soliders on and helps those in need. The ending was the most surprising part of the story as I was reading it my eyes got really big and I was like &quot;what&quot; or in the words of my daughter &quot;OMG&quot;.  The lesson that I got from this story is that even when surround by so much death and grief love is still able to blossom.

    Recommended for: Those that enjoy historical fiction especially those that are interest in how major historical events might have effected everyday people, this is fiction so we know that it is not completely truthful but it gives us all a glimpse into how it might have been.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2013

    An amazing read! It pulled me in at the very beginning! It was i

    An amazing read! It pulled me in at the very beginning! It was interesting to learn how terrible the plague truly was through the eyes of a woman. I love how Anna transforms from a housekeeper to a valuable healer that the whole village comes to depend on.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 15, 2013


    Now that I know to search for a hand or a foot while facilitating a breech birth and how to loosen lead ore from a mine wall, I feel much improved. Be warned, however: this book is not for those who dislike reading about pus.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2013

    Highly recommended

    This was an excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing and the plot. My only issue is with the way she wrapped up the story, but this is a small quibble. I will read more by this author!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 19, 2012

    Good Read!

    This was a great read once I got passed the beginning. (thus the 4 stars) This novel takes place during the time of the plague in the small town of Eyam, Derbyshire England between 1665 through 1666.The town rector has convinced the town to voluntarily quarantine. The story is told through the eyes of a servant - Anna Frith - who has more common sense than most and sees the plague as man versus nature not God's wrath. The tale weaves many different characters into the story and may give confusion to some but they are needed to tell the story. The ending may surprise many ( me included ) but I found it more rewarding than the usual fare. The story's beginnings are true but what happens in the town's quarantine is a work of fiction.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 1, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A Great Read

    This book a very good read. I enjoyed Anna's character ... she was strong, caring, heroic and showed marvelous perseverance as she struggled to help people in her village the year that the plague hit in 1666. I enjoyed the author's writing style as she wrote about that year through Anna's eyes. I knew the book was going to be good from page 1 ... you can just tell that about some books and this was one of them. I loved Anna's relationship with the rector and his wife, Elinor ... I felt sorrow with her for the loss of her children. I got to know her and felt her pain and her triumphs. The book was great all through but then the last quarter of it just took off in a whirlwind and I literally couldn't put it down ... I had to keep reading to see what would happen next to this girl, her family and her village. This was my first Geraldine Brooks book but not my last. Read this one!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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