Are you intrigued with plagues? I am and always have been. It seems a morbid interest, and it makes me question my moral compass, still I am just filled with so many questions. Is this the hand of God? Why does the plague strike down entire families, but ignore their neighbors? How awful would it be to tuck your little ones in bed at night, knowing there wasn't a darned thing you could do to protect them?
When author and journalist Geraldine Brooks was traveling through the English countryside, she came across the small Derbyshire village of Eyam that, in 1665, self-imposed a quarantine to prevent the spread of the Black Plague from its inhabitants to nearby communities. Brooks couldn't get the story out of her head, and decided to make it a work of fiction firmly grounded by substantial historical fact.
Synopsis: Through the eyes of Anna Frith, a poor young widow with two small children, we are introduced to the small English town of Eyam in the year 1665. Anna works for the town rectory as a housekeeper, and details the lives of the local miners, the town healer, the drunks, her close friends, and her love for her sons. When a traveler rents a room from Anna, it seems to be a blessing for the extra income and the male influence for her boys. When he suddenly becomes ill with a fever and blisters, and quickly dies, an evil is unleashed on the town. Soon the sickness spreads to many in the town, and the town rector asks the townspeople to willingly quarantine themselves to protect the disease from spreading beyond the town limits.
From there, and over the next 14 months, we witness the shocking effects of isolation and fear on it's inhabitants. The healers are blamed for witchcraft and a mob mentality takes over. There is thievery, drunkenness, self-flagellation, suicide, and madness. At the same time, others step up to selflessly care for the ailing, take in orphaned children and bury the dead, relying on their faith to pull them through.
Once the plague has run its course, however, Anna must undergo even further tests of her strength and determination to survive...tests she never imagined she would have to face, but ultimately she is left with that the year was not only nightmarish, but filled with blessings and wonder.
My thoughts: I've heard of this book before, but I sat up and took notice when Jackie (Farm Lane Books) raved about it. Jackie is not one to go on about just any book, and while she warned of its intensity, I felt pretty sure I would like it.
The book certainly grabbed me from the very beginning, it wrapped its hands around my heart and squeezed...hard. The fear and despair experienced by these people couldn't have been more real and more devastating to me personally. I felt I was there, afraid to open my eyes and witness the next death. I was exhausted from nursing the sick, and trying to keep up with the work that was performed by 3/4 of the townspeople who are no longer alive. The characters were flawed and real, the scenarios completely believable. It was a pure study of humanity at its worst and best.
The prose is written in a formal English (I'm sorry, there is probably a name for it) that sounds appropriate for that period, but it wasn't hard to understand. The fact that this was generally a true story makes this book a solid entry in the historical fiction genre.
Did I have any complaints? As Jackie stated in her review, the ending went slightly off-course and was tied up a little too neatly, and I would agree that this was somewhat disconcerting, after all that horridness. Still, it was a nice contrast and prevented the book from finishing me off and sending me into a total depression. It was a nice little ray of hope.
A word about the audio production: Our narrator for this book was Josephine Bailey, a new-to-me voice. She has got an impressive resume, such as Pride and Prejudice (not the one I listened to unfortunately!), The Woman in White, Atonement, and The Secret Garden. She has a beautiful, melodic British accent, reminding me of a smoother Davina Porter. She was a pleasure to listen to.
4.5 out of 5 stars