Friday, October 30, 2009

Black Death

I said that I'd thoroughly enjoyed People of the Book, and was looking forward to reading more of Geraldine Brooks, so I picked up Year of Wonders the last time I was downtown.

The first thing I noticed about it was that it had been beaten to hell. That's usually a good sign in library books. Crinkled cover, limp spine, coffee and tea stains throughout, it usually means that it's been well-loved. I could see why.

The book is set in England in 1666 and based on the true story of a small English village that saw an outbreak of the plague. After it became clear that the epidemic had visited their doorstep, the villagers made the striking and courageous decision to barricade themselves in. A local earl left provisions for them at the town's Boundary Stone so they wouldn't starve. Anyone with a special need would leave a note (or in the case of the illiterate, a small sample of what they had run out of)and money.

The effects of an epidemic on society continue to fascinate people. In this story, told through the eyes of the minister's servant Anna, you see acts of heroism, acts of greed, of violence and fear, of kindness and courage. To be sure, there's lots of nasty stuff in this book. There's a hanging, a death from exposure after an individual was fixed to a post with a knife through his hands, a near-drowning of an infant, a near-death in childbirth, and I left out some of the more disgusting things that turn out to be central elements to the plot.

Speaking of which...that's one of the best parts of this book. The basic outcome is pretty much a forgone conclusion. The plague wiped out around 20% of London's population that year, and in the historic Eyam, the death toll was more like 75%. Yet, it has a forward momentum of its own. You keep turning the pages to see what's going to happen, even though you already sort of know. The characters are strong and intriguing, even if the narrator is a bit cliched. Just once, I'd love to read a book set in the Middle Ages or Colonial America narrated by a woman who does NOT have a keen mind and love for learning uncharacteristic of women of her time.

But if Anna gets on your nerves at all, there are lots of other people in this book. The ancient herbalist woman and her niece, who live at the edge of town and are called on whenever there's an illness or a childbirth. Anna's drunken, no-good father and stepmother. The strong, determined minister and his equally compassionate, determined wife. Anna's lodger, the sexy and clever tailor who brought the doom to the village. The orphaned Quaker girl with nothing to her name except a lead mine, which is in danger of being poached and claimed until Anna and the minister's wife heroically intervene.

One aspect of the books I read that I rarely mention is the language itself. I guess it's because language is a bit like sound design for a movie: when it's well-done, you generally don't even notice it's there at all. This is sort of a different case, though. It's hard for modern writers to get the linguistic feel for the way people talked long ago. Some writers choose to avoid the issue and just write it "straight." Others make it sound too stiff and flowery, so that you have a small-town servant talking like Shakespeare. Brooks found a good balance. The villagers' voices are down to earth, yet they use words in their old sense. Brooks even employs some no-longer-heard slang (it took me most of the book to realize that "choused" is a word sort of similar to "cheated" or "tricked.")

All in all, I reccomend Year of Wonders. I even forgive its rather off-the-wall ending. The book raises still-pertinent questions of what it means to live in a society and how far one's duty to one's neighbors extends. Each villager, in the Year of Wonders, finds his or her own answer, but none are without consequences.

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