This title is something else. It's more ironic than the crowd at an Animal Collective concert.
That's because few people whose town has been destroyed by the Black Plague would describe that experience as wonderful. More like horrible. Awful. Horrendous. A worse experience than Batman v Superman.
Despite these circumstances, the year actually is wonderful for Anna Frith. True, she suffers unthinkable tragedies on a near-daily basis. Despite that, she grows immensely over the course of the year, finding her calling as a healer and becoming a feminist before feminists were a thing. It won't undo the pain, but it might just make it worth it.
The title also references the idea of the annus mirabilis, which is a Latin term that refers to a year that is exceptional in some way. Well, we think this one certainly fits the bill. Check out "What's Up With the Epigraph?" for more insight into that concept.
Anna is busier in the last two chapters than the rest of the novel combined. She sparks an affair with Mompellion. She ends said affair. She delivers the Bradfords' newborn daughter, whom she then raises as her own because the Bradfords are ashamed of the scandalous circumstances of her birth.
See what we mean?
It turns out that the Bradfords want to frame Anna to cover their tracks, so she's forced to leave Eyam and find a new home. She plans to stay with Elinor's family at first, but at the last minute before arriving she changes her mind because it doesn't feel right: "I was not Elinor, after all, but Anna. It was time to seek a place where the child and I together might make something entirely new" (e.6).
Anna ends up marrying an Algerian doctor named Ahmed Bey, but not for love—she becomes his medical assistant. This is a big step for Anna, as she's both fulfilling her calling in medicine and becoming a more independent woman. It's the culmination of everything she's worked toward.
But that's not all—she gives birth to a daughter named Elinor, presumably from her encounter with Mompellion. While it might be weird to name your daughter after the deceased ex-wife of her dad, it's another way of showing us that beautiful things can be born from tragedy.
You think that your hometown has changed a lot since you were a kid? Just imagine how different it would be if it had been hit by the Black Plague.
Before the plague, Eyam is an idyllic country town. The people there are modest and well-meaning. The surrounding nature is beautiful. Even the local Puritan pastor is a genuinely good-hearted dude. It's the kind of place you'd see on a postcard, if they had had postcards in the 17th century.
Unfortunately, everything changes once the plague bears down on this tiny village.
The change is most obvious, at first, in the disposition of the villagers. What was once a tight-knit community is now paranoid and insane, with people accusing each other of dabbling in "witchcraft" and "spells" (2.13.82) on a daily basis. Eyam used to feel like a sitcom; now it feels like a horror movie. Even worse—it feels like a "wide green prison" (2.7.33).
We can see the dismantling of this community in the physical landscape as well. The first whopper is when Mompellion shuts down the church and instead holds services next to the river. The community's main gathering place is now kaput; it's just too dangerous to be in a confined space like that.
In a similar way, Anna notes after the plague leaves town that "the road is grassed over, with just a cow-track down the center where the slight use of a few passing feet has worn the weeds down" (1.1.27). Nature has taken over.
Anna isn't going to see how Eyam ends up, however, because she lands in far-off Algeria. No, really. This might be unexpected, but it's her way of following her dreams to learn more about medicine and carve her own path in life. The mere fact that Anna ends up somewhere so far outside her comfort zone shows her immense growth over the course of the novel.
Oh let it be enough what thou hast done;
When spotted deaths ran arm'd through every street,
With poison'd darts, which not the good could shun,
The speedy could outfly, or valiant meet.
The living few, and frequent funerals then,
Proclaim'd thy wrath on this forsaken place:
And now those few who are return'd agen
Thy searching judgment to their dwellings trace.
From Annus Mirabilis, The Year of Wonders, 1666,
by John Dryden
In case you didn't notice, this John Dryden poem is written about the year 1666, the same year in which the events of Year of Wonders take place. Although the poem doesn't directly refer to Eyam, it does hint at it.
Annus mirabilis is a Latin phrase that can be translated as "wonderful year." Sound familiar? This refers to a year that is especially notable, for a variety of reasons. For example, the year that Einstein discovered E = MC², among other theories, is known as his personal annus mirabilis. Or think of the upheavals of 1968, or 2016.
In his poem, Dryden describes a very difficult year for England. The brutal Anglo-Dutch War defined 1665. The plague bore down on London soon after, subsequently spreading to small towns like Eyam. In September 1666, the Great Fire of London tore through the city and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. All in all, it was a brutal time.
What Dryden argues, however, is that there is still much to be thankful for amid such tragedy. And isn't that the same lesson Anna learns? To survive such a calamity should be a badge of honor. What's more, the fact that there are survivors shows that life always finds a way to go on.
Although Year of Wonders takes place in 1600s England, don't expect the writing style to be quite as old fashioned. Author Geraldine Brooks will occasionally throw in an antiquated word or two, but she writes in an approachable way that shouldn't be challenging to most readers.
Now, that's a wonder.
Over the course of the novel, Anna Frith becomes Eyam's resident midwife. And she's good. She's like the Michael Jordan of delivering babies.
Let's take a look at the two main childbirths in the novel:
As we can see, Anna gains a great deal of personal satisfaction delivering newborns. She feels happy to have "celebrated a life" amid "that season of death" (2.7.56). These births represent humanity's ability to survive and even thrive in the face of immense death and destruction, which is an idea that comforts Anna a great deal. Life, as Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, finds a way.
What's your least favorite smell? Garbage? Farts? Axe body spray? For Anna Frith, the answer to this question is "none of the above." Her least favorite smell is rotting apples.
We know this because she says so, like, a billion times. We watch her get overwhelmed by the stench as she walks through the apple orchard, noting that "there are so few people to do the picking" these days (1.1.2). Anna once loved this smell, as it was always associated with the fall season, but now she just thinks about the plague whenever it hits her nostrils.
For Anna, then, the "sickly sweet smell" (2.2.67) of rotting apples becomes a symbol of the decay caused by the plague. It becomes a reminder of how things that once brought comfort can now bring pain. Eesh. We don't know about y'all, but we're not going to be in the mood for a fresh Fuji or McIntosh anytime soon.
We're talking about medicinal herbs, folks, so don't get it twisted.
Medicinal herbs in this novel are associated with independent, seemingly dangerous women. It's Anys and Mem Gowdie who are Eyam's resident herb experts before their untimely deaths, and it's Anna and Elinor who pick up where they leave off. As we know, not everyone thinks that this is a good idea. As Anna says: "I knew how easy it is for widow to be turned witch in the common mind, and the first cause generally is that she meddles somehow in medicinals" (2.2.50).
In this society, a skilled woman is something to be feared. Sigh. Those are some swell gender roles, huh?
Herbs thus represent a world that exists outside of certain societal constraints. They represent how the women we meet in the novel—Anna, Elinor, Anys, and Mem—must overstep the boundaries placed in front of them by their society in order to create their own sense of community and strength.