Calidris Reads: England, 1665

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Year of Wonders:
A novel of the plague

Geraldine Brooks

Read for: Imaginary journey to England & pandemic pastime

Opening: “I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light.”

Although it is set in England, 1665-1666, Year of Wonders is a story for here and now. I first read it a number of years ago and liked it enough to stash it on my “might be read again” shelf. The characters are interesting and drawn well, the writing is just my style, with spare but evocative descriptions, and the premise, intriguing.

The plot is a fictionalized retelling of the true story of Eyam, a small countryside village like many others in the seventeenth century. The people live simple, sometimes harsh lives, but thrive through faith and community. When the Black Death arrives via a delivery of cloth from plague-stricken London, village life is shattered as every home is visited by horrific illness and agonizing death. The town’s religious leader urges the villagers to take the burden of the plague upon themselves and voluntarily quarantine so that the disease should not be carried beyond Eyam’s borders.

How the various characters respond to this challenge creates the drama and poses questions for the reader: What would you do if faced by this situation? Do people act better or worse when lives are at stake? Do you have a higher duty to your family or to society? Should one sacrifice personal freedom for the good of others?

One reviewer of the book wrote: “[Year of Wonders]…leaves us with the memory of vivid characters struggling in timeless human ways with the hardships confronting them….”

Does this strike any familiar chords? Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, deniers, exploiters, haters, haranguers, heroes, and helpers. The great of heart and the small of brain.

Welcome to 2020.

While culling my library in October, I came across Year of Wonders and realized immediately that if there was a time to reread the book, it had to be now.

In an 2001 article published after the September 11 attacks, author Geraldine Brooks wrote: “Whether we also shall one day look back upon this year of flames, germs, and war as a ‘year of wonders’ will depend, perhaps, on how many are able…to match the courageous self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam.” She could have just as well have written that today.

Speaking in a subsequent interview, she said: “Eyam is a story of ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of others. Love, hate, fear. The desire to live and to see your children live. Are these things different on a beautiful autumn morning in a twenty-first-century city than they were in an isolated seventeenth-century village? I don’t think so. One thing I believe completely is that the human heart remains the human heart, no matter how our material circumstances change as we move together through time.”

People magazine’s review of the book included this comment: “[Year of Wonders]…subtly reveals how ignorance, hatred, and mistrust can be as deadly as any virus.”

Wow. The wilful stupidity and bigotry of some segments of the population during the current pandemic plus the deliberate deception practiced by some of our leaders certainly proves that point.

Published almost two decades ago, Year of Wonders is still worth seeking out. O, The Oprah Magazine called it “a vividly imagined and strangely consoling tale of hope in a time of despair.”

Isn’t that what we all could use right now—a tale of hope in a time of despair?

Five knots: A must-read

Sky Candy

I once took a balloon ride over the farmlands that surround my home. Floating hundreds of feet in the air with no roaring jet engine to assault my ears and nothing between me and the earth but a layer of basketry is probably the closest I’ll ever get to riding the winds like a bird. You expect it to be silent up there, but it’s not; the burners beneath the “envelope” flame noisily at regular intervals, and you can actually hear many sounds from the world below—dogs barking, cars honking, trains whistling. Above you is a rainbow canopy of brilliant colour. You gaze down at the patchwork of fields, roads, rooftops, and streams and it’s enchantingly surreal.

That’s the experience from the top down. Now, when I stand with my feet on the ground, looking up at a hot air balloon wafting by, I can feel that sensation of freedom again. Multiply that pleasure by a hundred times and you’ll start to understand the thrill of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.

Granted, the conditions the afternoon we attended were absolutely perfect: one of those rare English days with plenty of sun, blue skies, and almost no wind. We drove for miles through the countryside, searching for Ashton Court Estate, the location of the festival. Once again I thanked the patron saint of travelers, St. GPS.

The site was huge and grassy, with a few shade trees around the edges. A busy fairground with rides and games kept the youngsters happy while their elders staked out picnic blankets around the launch field. We sprawled on the gentle hillside and soaked in the sun with ice cream cones in hand to watch the entertainment. RC airplanes and stunt pilots in ultralights twisted and dove a few metres above the ground.

Eventually, the field cleared and the balloonists began driving out, trailers in tow. With practiced teamwork, they unload their baskets, unroll and hook up the envelopes (that’s the balloon part of the airship), and start up the burners to fill the envelopes. At this stage, the balloons look like a giant’s laundry spread out on the grass to dry. But as the air flows in, they come to life, big bubbles of trapped gas transforming flat into 3-D.

Slowly, each envelope grows, starts to rise and take shape. You recognize the traditional rainbow stripes, a multitude of corporate colours and logos, and, to everyone’s delight, the “special shapes.” An enormous one-eyed Minion grins at the crowd, while a pair of penguins (boy and girl) and the “Up” balloon—based on the animated film—carve out their unique silhouettes against the sky. There’s even a square balloon with a dragon wrapped around it.

Finally, like a child’s helium-filled toy accidentally released, the first balloon launches, followed by more and more, until the sky is filled with over a hundred gently ascending lighter-than-air vessels. They drift away, dandelion puffs at the mercy of the wind, gradually shrinking in our view until they disappear over the horizon.

And oh how I envy their crews! I want to see again what they see: ant-like people and cars,  little puffs of green that are trees, the houses no more than Lego blocks. I’m tired of being an ant, so look for me at the next balloon festival I can find. Maybe I’ll be able to hitch a ride.

“Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon…”