With its subtitle, “A Novel of the Plague,” I was initially worried this book would be a real downer. Far from it. Year of Wonders is the story of one village’s fight to survive and keep up a sense of community. Told by Anna Frith, servant to the Rector Mompellion and his wife Elinor, the story takes place in 1665-66 as a late outbreak of bubonic plague takes hold of a Derbyshire village. The Rector is young, enthusiastic, and committed to his flock. When disease strikes and takes its first victim, Mompellion convinces the villagers to quarantine themselves as a form of protection. No one may leave the town, and arrangements are made for food and other provisions to be delivered to a safe space. But this well-intentioned action misses the mark, as increasing numbers of people are struck down, and people who once lived in harmony are filled with suspicion and fear.
But within this tragedy is a story of persistence and hope. The Rector works tirelessly to bury the dead and give pastoral care to the bereaved. Anna and Elinor, too, minister to the sick, especially the children. Anna has experienced her own share of loss, and yet finds meaning in caring for others. For a short time she tries to escape the reality of recurring death by taking an opiate, but stops when she realizes its addictive powers:
How do we tumble down a hill? A foot placed incautiously on an unsteady rock or loosened turf, an ankle twisted or a knee buckled, and of a sudden we are gone, our body lost to our own control until we find ourselves sprawled in indignity at the bottom. So it seems apt indeed to speak of the Fall. For sin, too, must always start with but a single misstep, and suddenly we are hurtling toward some uncertain stopping point. All that is sure in the descent is that we will arrive sullied and bruised and unable to regain our former place without hard effort. (p. 134)
Much later, Anna questions the religious explanation for the Plague:
Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God, or the evil working of the Devil in the world? One of these beliefs we embraced, the other we scorned as superstition. But perhaps each was false, equally. Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe. … 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 up on 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 full of sinners or a host of saints. (p. 215)
Anna continues her ministry using herbal remedies learned from another member of her village, and just as the epidemic begins to fade she experiences one more staggering loss. She faces this with the same strength that saw her through the Plague year, and rides off toward an uplifting, if somewhat implausible, future.