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
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