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Geraldine Brooks – Year of Wonders

April 23, 2013

21. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)

Length: 308 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 20 March 2013
Finished: 31 March 2013

Where did it come from? BookMooch.
Why do I have it? I’m sure I heard about it somewhere on somebody’s blog, but five years after the fact, I have no idea whose.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 24 May 2008.

I love books where my
standard spoiler warning is
right: EVERYBODY DIES.

Summary: It is 1665, and the restoration is spreading across England, but in the small lead-mining town of Eyam, the wider world seems very far away. But not as far away as they might wish, when a traveller arrives in town bearing the seeds of the deadly Plague from London. As members of the town begin falling ill and dying, the townspeople – lead by their rector, Mr. Mompellion – choose to quarrantine themselves to the confines of their town rather than risk spreading the disease to other villages. This story of the year that follows is told through the eyes of Anna, a serving girl in the Mompellion’s household. Anna initially agreed with the quarrantine, but as people continue dying with no end in sight, and the very fabric of their society begins to unravel, how can the villagers keep any shred of their normal lives from crumbling to dust?

Review: I can’t entirely believe I waited as long as I did to read Geraldine Brooks’s books. This and People of the Book are different books, with very different narrators, but Brooks manages to slip into each of their voices seamlessly and completely. In this case, I was instantly caught up in Anna’s voice, and her story, and in the world of tiny mining town in the English countryside. (Although I occasionally had to remind myself that this was all happening in a post-Tudor, post-Shakespeare world. Most plague novels I’ve read are set much earlier – notably Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, and the rural setting didn’t always provide a multitude of clues as to the time period.) I got so involved in this book that I almost started crying while reading it on the bus. And the amazing thing is that Brooks manages to draw out this emotion, despite the fact that we know how it’s going to end. The book starts with a scene from near the end of the Plague year, and mentions some of the most important deaths right off the bat. We know within the first 20 pages that those that Anna loves are going to die, but it’s still totally heartbreaking when they do. Also impressive is that again, even though we know how the story ends, Brooks manages to maintain a certain sense of tension and suspense throughout the story, and even pull off a surprise or two – certainly not all of the events of the story unfolded the way I expected them to, nor did the path that events took to reach where they stand when the book opens run the way I thought it would in several key cases. There are a few places where the story slows down a bit, but all in all, this book was immersive and sad and beautiful, and a general pleasure to read. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Historical fiction fans should snap this one up, if they haven’t already.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

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First Line: I used to love this season.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location 109: “This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.” – a number of sheaves set upright in a field to dry with their heads together.
    .
  • Location 132: “The sight of the scythe blade still upon his workbench vexed me, for I’d asked him to mendit long since, and the timothy now was naught but blown seed head and no longer worth the cutting.” – Any of several grasses of the genus Phleum, having a dense cylindrical inflorescence of compressed, one-flowered spikelets and widely cultivated for hay.
    .
  • Location 210: “So I drove her inside and fitted it up as her boose, fattening her through the cold months with their oats – abundant food of which the dead had no need.” – A stall or a crib for an ox, cow, or other animal.
    .
  • Location 228: “I used to rue its dustiness in summer and muddiness in winter, the rain all rizen in the wheel ruts making glassy hazards for the unwary stepper.” – the internet is not being a big help here, but maybe “frozen”?
    .
  • Location 258: “She pinched her face at this; she was not accustomed to sharing a doorway with servants, and I could see she had expected me to pass to the kitchen garth and then come and let her in with accustomed ceremony.” – A grassy quadrangle surrounded by cloisters; a yard or garden.
    .
  • Location 292: “She moved for the door, but I was quicker, blocking her path like a collie facing down an unruly tup.” – A male sheep; a ram.
    .
  • Location 296: “His voice was low but its jussive tone stopped her.” – A word, mood, or form used to express command.
    .
  • Location 306: ““Kindly ask your mother to do me the honor of advancing the same tolerance for my absence now that your family arrogated for so long in regard to its own.”” – To take or claim for oneself without right.
    .
  • Location 372: “The day after that, I came home and found Jamie decked out like a Harlequin in all the fabric scraps from Mr. Viccar’s whisket.” – A basket; esp., a straw provender basket.
    .
  • Location 389: “Sam’s world was a dark, damp maze of rakes and scrins thirty feet under the ground.” – smaller subsidiary veins of lead ore.
    .
  • Location 443: “It was a golden green, the color of sunlight-dappled leaves, of modest style, but well cut and flattering, its whisk and hands trimmed in Genoa lace.” – A lady’s neckerchief or gorgette. I’ve also found a link that suggests wisk without the “h” is the name for the wire frames covered in sheer fabric worn behind the neck/head that you see in Elizabethan portraits. (Although the one in the book is probably much simpler.)
    .
  • Location 502: “It was a morning fit for the contemplation of new beginnings, and as I watched a whinchat trailing a worm to feed his young, I wondered if I, too, should look for a helper in the rearing of my boys.” – A small brownish Old World songbird (Saxicola rubetra) often found in open country.
    .
  • Location 504: “Sam had left me the cottage and the sheepfold behind, but they had nicked his stowe the day they brought his body out of the mine.” – a machine which formerly was the only apparatus for drawing up the ore in tubs from the mine.
    .
  • Location 506: “Jonas Howe has the seam now, and being a good man, and a friend of Sam’s, he feels he has choused me, although why he should I know not, as it can hardly be a swindle when the law here time out of mind has made it plain that those who cannot pull a dish of lead from a mine within three nicks may not keep it.” – To cheat, trick, defraud.
    .
  • Location 599: “Presently, I went to the kitchen to begin the day’s real labor and in the scrubbing of deal and sanding of pewter consumed the morning hours.” – A fir or pine board cut to standard dimensions.
    .
  • Location 608: “But then I realized it was night to noon and Tom would be fair-clemmed and mewling for his milk” – to be hungry or cause to be hungry.
    .
  • Location 612: “There was not laughter or merry shouting from within, and indeed, in the kitchen I found only a sullen Jane Martin distracting Tom with a finger of arrowroot and water, while Jamie, all subdued, played alone by the hearth, making towers from the bavins and thus strewing bits of broken kindling everywhere.” – A fagot of brushwood, or other light combustible matter, for kindling fires
    .
  • Location 764: “She shooed a gray gib-cat off a rickety chair and pulled up a stool for herself.” – A male cat, esp. an old one
    .
  • Location 841: “The Bradfords’ son was a rake-shamed, drunken fanfarroon who fortunately stayed mostly in London.” – a swaggerer, or empty boaster.
    .
  • Location 936: “There are some who deem this mountainside bleak country, and I can see how it might seem so: the land all chewed up by the miners, their stowes like scaffolds upon the moors, and their bings like weedy molehills interrupting the pale mauve tide of the heather.” – a heap or pile, especially of spoil from a mine.
    .
  • Location 1155: “I had already tried cataplasms of Bay salt and rye meal, made into a paste with egg yolk and strapped across the sore with a piece of soft leather.” – a poultice.
    .
  • Location 1227: “And from there I could not hear the rhythmic swish and thump of the sexton’s shoveling or see the raw sillion laid open to receive the body of another neighbor.” – The thick, voluminous, and shiny soil turned over by a plow.
    .
  • Location 1241: “I believe I might have gone on so, given up to grief and confusion, if it had not been for a hirsel from my flock losing itself upon the moors.” – flock of sheep
    .
  • Location 1245: “I was following what I hoped was the trail of their scat along a clough at the edge of the moors, praying to find them and bring them safely down before the light failed, when I heard a horrible yelling coming from near a mine that had been made Old Man by flooding some half dozen years earlier.” – a gorge or narro.w ravine
    .
  • Location 1272: “She was tugging first one of the men and then the other, trying to pull them to the adit.” – An almost horizontal entrance to a mine.
    .
  • Location 1275: “I pushed them aside and flung myself over the lip of the adit, feeling for the first stemple.” – A crossbar of wood in a shaft, serving as a step.
    .
  • Location 1436: “Five pews in front of me, I saw the white head of Alun Houghton, Barmester to our miners, coming slowly erect on his massive shoulders as the rector’s words penetrated his understanding.” – Formerly, a local judge among miners.
    .
  • Location 1484: “Now, he came forward, speaking softly to all those who had been, or secretly still were, of a precisian learning and who perhaps had difficulty in trusting Mr. Mompellion.” – One who is strict and precise in adherence to established rules, forms, or standards, especially with regard to religious observance or moral behavior; a Puritan.
    .
  • Location 1775: “Farther along the road, a farmer had allowed them to sleep the night amongst his cows in their warm shippon.” – A cowhouse; a shippen.
    .
  • Location 1839: ““Someone fetch me a branks to muzzle this scold!”” – a headpiece with a flat iron bit to restrain the tongue, formerly used to restrain scolding women.
    .
  • Location 1879: “Once, widening a scrin, he dropped a great toadstone that near to crushed his ankle.” – an amygdaloidal basalt occurring in the limestone regions of Derbyshire.
    .
  • Location 1886: “In the end, I brought it home again and placed it guiltily in a pipkin.” – A small earthenware or metal cooking pot.
    .
  • Location 1920: “He was fevered, his mouth caked with sordes, and struggling for breath.” – dark incrustations on the lips and teeth of patients with prolonged fever.
    .
  • Location 2205: “I hurried to the kitchen, warmed a mug of purl for him, and carried it back out to where he stood, waist deep in the dirt.” – an English drink, originally made by infusing ale with the tops of the wormwood plant.
    .
  • Location 2386: “George Wickford, up late and pacing because he could not sleep for worry about how to feed his family, saw a great burning drake streaking its white path across the heavens.” – typically a male duck, but also an old word for dragon, which I think fits the context (a shooting star/meteor) better than a duck on fire.
    .
  • Location 2389: “By morning he had dug out his cross in the turf to mark his claim, had cut his seven timbers for the sprags to hold it upright.” – a prop to support a mine roof.
    .
  • Location 2455: ““You shall have much to do in sorting the bouse we raise into ores and deads and buddling the ore in the wash to ride it of the toadstone.”” – To pull or hoist with a tackle; an inclined trough in which crushed ore is washed with running water to flush away impurities.
    .
  • Location 2545: “Or, as happened with my Sam, the very bones and sinews of the Earth can break under the strain, and instead of freeing out a fother of ore, the entire weight of the ground above can come piling down to bury you.” – A wagonload; a load of any sort.
    .
  • Location 2683: “Mr. Mompellion said that the whole village understood the value of the work he performed and the risk he was shouldering; that it was not marvelous that he should feel entitled to some reward for such labor, for even in the tales of the ancients, the ferryman who carried souls across the Styx had required his guerdon.” – A reward; recompense.
    .
  • Location 3526: “The rain had been siling down for much of the preceding week, and the bare, blackened circle where our goods had been consigned to the flames was hazed all over with a hopeful wash of new green.” – to rain heavily.
    .

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2013 9:55 am

    Great review of one of my favorite historical fiction books! I also loved Doomsday Book, but for different reasons. I sometimes think of historical novels set during the plague as a the medieval version of zombie post-apocalypses. :)

  2. annettesbookspot permalink
    April 23, 2013 10:17 am

    I am admittedly biased when it comes to historical fiction, but I loved this one. Great review. Thanks for reminding me!

    • May 14, 2013 12:02 pm

      Annette – You’re welcome! I’m always on the lookout for awesome historical fiction.

  3. April 24, 2013 9:40 am

    I’ve had this in my tbr pile for probably just as long, and I forgot about it until I read your review. I think I picked it up because I loved Doomsday Book.

    • May 14, 2013 12:04 pm

      Leslie – I had to check the dates, but I didn’t read Doomsday Book until a few months after I’d already acquired this… I wish I’d been better about recording my sources for picking up various books!

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