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Speaking about the epidemic in her Year of Wonders (2001), Geraldine Brooks makes it clear that the disease is not the worst thing that isolated and quarantined people can face. After all, not going crazy and maintaining a semblance of human dignity is not an easy task and you will have to make an effort. Not everyone succeeds in preserving humanity, but despair covers everyone from time to time, and it is possible to cope with it only together. The only negative of the book is the ending of the story.
On the calendar, the year 1665 is wielding a terrible plague in London, on the streets - ghost people in bird masks stuffed with various herbs because in this way they are trying to isolate themselves from infection. The plague, that great equalizer, spared neither palaces nor huts, but most hoped to survive anyway. In the center of the "Year of Miracles" is the small English village of Eyam, located at some distance from the communication lines. It seemed that such a location should provide the villagers with relative freedom from a dangerous epidemic, but it turned out differently (Brooks 73). Despite the initially peaceful, setting, the novel becomes quite tense rather quickly. However, the source of tension lies not only within the fact of the coming plague epidemic.
The main attention grabber of the novel was the description of events, close enough to known sources. The author populated her village with characters, many of which have prototypes in history. Anna Frith is the main character-turned-voice of the story, who we meet in the house of Mr. Mompellion, the rector of the village where she works as a maid. Anna was destined to endure many losses: she buried her husband and two young sons and even witnessed a ritual murder committed by a distraught crowd. The victim of aggressive superstition, multiplied by fear, was an herbalist who was not afraid to live the way she wanted, she helped people, treated diseases, and was engaged in obstetric care (Whitener 217). The element of realism largely adds to the narrative, allowing the reader to immerse almost completely into the story. Here, Brooks effectively sets the stage for another important element of the narrative, a psychological element.
Overnight, the villagers lost a person for whom they can hardly find a replacement. Most of the murderers and accomplices of this crime soon became victims of a contagious disease themselves. But the danger comes not only from plague bacilli; greed, thirst for revenge, and obscuration of reason are also ready to claim their rights to human souls (Brooks 95). At this point, the major themes of the novel, social oppression, hysteria, and suspicious human nature start to become more evident.
Widowed Anna learned to live on her own, raised two charming little boys, did housework, went after animals, and even began to fall in love with her tenant, a tailor from London, the man showed a serious interest in her and got along well with her children. The tailoring profession looks secure and not nearly as dangerous as her late husband's job. A tailor needs to replenish his stock of fabrics for work, and one day Anna notices how new fabrics, delivered straight from London, are being dried in front of her house. Historians suggest that it was with these fabrics that the plague was brought to Eyam. The head of the village, using the authority of his holy dignity and the natural power of persuasion, announced the strictest lockdown in the village because this is the only way to stop the spread of the infection. He called on all the inhabitants of the village to show nobility and not leave its borders until the end of the epidemic (Brooks 135). The tension then rises even further, with people trying to accept the new lifestyle in isolation, with suspense peaking near the end of the book.
The author describes the behavior of people locked up in this way in the village, and it is very different because such a test made it possible to manifest both the most worthy and the lowest qualities of human nature. While strife comes to some families, Anna and the rector's wife draw closer. Anna is surprised to learn how difficult the life of the benevolent Mrs. Mompelon was. Some unsightly imprints of the era are highlighted, for example, various superstitions, and the fight against witches (Whitener 222). The major point of the story is that despite any catastrophe, people are still capable of negative feelings towards each other and might turn overly individualistic even in the face of grave danger.
You may get the impression that the ending was written for some other work. As if the narration, unexpectedly for the reader, switched from a wave broadcasting a gloomy, foggy reality of a distant era, to an oriental fairy tale. By the way, the port city where the heroine arrives is called Oran, a coincidence, but Camus and his "Plague" come to mind. Finally, the question arises, how did it happen that among the villagers there were those who were in close contact with those who died from the plague, but not only did not die but did not even get sick? Scientists have found that the answer is in genetics, a rare genetic mutation delta32 provided protection against the plague. Many of its owners were lucky to survive outbreaks of the disease and the same mutation provides protection against HIV infection.
Brooks, Geraldine. Year Of Wonders. Penguin Publishing Group, 2002.
Whitener, J. Kori. "Year Of Wonders: The Wonder Of Leadership". Advances In Developing Human Resources, vol 9, no. 2, 2007, pp. 214-234. SAGE Publications, https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422306298860. Accessed 19 May 2022.
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