Study Guide

Year of Wonders

By Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders Introduction

There's a book we just have to tell you about. It follows the events in a small town in the countryside that's been struck by a brutal pandemic that upends the social order and turns neighbor against neighbor. In the aftermath, the survivors band together and struggle to survive.

No, we're not talking about the latest spinoff of The Walking Dead. We're talking about Year of Wonders, a novel that explores a bizarre but true story about the Black Plague.

In 1665, the plague spread from London to a small village called Eyam. Unlike most people in other places, who skipped town at the first sign of the disease, the villagers of Eyam stayed put and dealt with it in an attempt to prevent the plague from reaching other villages. Based on this true story, Year of Wonders creates a semi-fictionalized narrative to let us experience history firsthand.

In the novel, we follow Anna Frith, a recently widowed mother of two who's struggling not just with the plague but also with her sense of identity. As Eyam is torn apart by the pandemic, Anna is forced to step up to the plate and dedicate her life to helping others. Whether she's concocting herbal remedies with her bestie, Elinor Mompellion, or delivering newborns better than Michael Jordan plays basketball, Anna discovers that she's capable of a lot more than her society expects from her.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Anna experiences immense suffering when death touches her family. She's mistreated by men who believe it's their right to control women. She witnesses lifelong neighbors go certifiably insane. Hey, it's not for nothing that people compare this novel to zombie fiction. Though these experiences shake Anna to her core, she ultimately emerges at the other end a better person.

This tale is the first novel from Geraldine Brooks, an acclaimed journalist who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 2005 novel, March. In many ways, Year of Wonders sets the tone for the novels that would follow in Brooks' career, which bring historical fiction and social commentary together in delicious packages.

So, yeah—it might not feature any brain eating, but Year of Wonders sure packs a mean punch.

What is Year of Wonders About and Why Should I Care?

The main characters of Year of Wonders often act like modern people who traveled back in time to 1600s England. Anna, for example, casually dismisses religious superstition in a way that seems out of place in this pre-Enlightenment society. Anys, on the other hand, goes even further: she's the embodiment of a 1960s hippie, 300 years before hippies came into existence.

This little bit of disconnect with the time period actually works out great for us readers. Why, you might ask? Because it helps us see how much our perspectives on social issues have changed over time.

This change is most pronounced when it comes to the issue of women's rights. Whether we're talking about marriage as a property arrangement, the rampant repression of sexuality, or overbearing religious principles keeping women subjugated, this novel shows how women weren't given a fair shake for...well, most of world history.

So how does Anna Frith react to this sort of oppression? Does she follow orders and stay in her place? Does she violently rise up against unfair social structures? Does she just say "meh" and move to an all-women commune?

The real answer lies somewhere in between. Through her journey, Anna shows us that women don't have to choose between being feminine and feminist. To say otherwise would just further perpetuate sexism. Ultimately, Anna chooses a path that is unique to herself, one that extremists on both ends would probably scoff at.

We can apply this thinking to practically anything. Hey, you just have to follow your heart, right? Just be sure to learn that lesson before a global pandemic hits your hometown. Take it from us.

Year of Wonders Resources

Websites

The Geraldine Brooks Official Website
This is your one-stop shop for all things Geraldine Brooks.

The Eyam Museum
If you ever find yourself in England, spend some time at this surely depressing museum about the events that influenced Year of Wonders.

Articles and Interviews

Geraldine Brooks Writes Under Any Circumstances
In this interview, Brooks provides some killer insight into her writing process.

Plague Cases in the U.S. on the Rise
This article was written back in 2015, so who knows how many cases of the plague there are now.

Video

Interview with Geraldine Brooks
Though this interview focuses on Brooks' 2015 novel The Secret Chord, Year of Wonders lovers should find plenty of interest here.

Geraldine Brooks on Being an Author
In this brief video, Brooks talks about how her voracious reading habits drive her writing.

Audio

Black Death DNA
Check out this NPR piece if you want to learn about the latest scientific theories behind the Black Plague.

Sarah Vowell Finds Humor in Puritan History
Although this piece focuses on the Puritans who came to America, we think you'll get a few laughs just the same.

Images

Mompesson's Well
Mompellion is based on a real preacher named Mompesson. This is a sign that bears his name in modern-day Eyam.

The Spread of the Plague
This map gives you an idea of just how quickly and widely the Black Plague spread throughout Europe.