And then there are those glorious books that I can hardly put down. This is the one I read this week—Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.
This book is very engaging. Like Brooks’ March, it’s a first-person narrative of an individual I came to care about at the very beginning of the book. This narrator is a young widow in England in 1666, who lives in a village that contracts Bubonic Plague. The villagers decide to quarantine themselves, and then they’re all stuck with each other until the Plague is exhausted. It’s also a book about friendship, religious fanaticism, seventeenth-century science, and forgiveness. (!)
Bubonic Plague killed a quarter to half of the population of Europe in 1346 and 1347. It was referred to as the Black Death because victims’ infected tissue turns black. Bleck! The Black Death also showed up during the Great Plague of London in 1666. Appararently, it’s generally spread by fleas that bite rats and mice, then the fleas go on to bite human beings, too.
(Of course, none of the sources I read mentioned how the rats & mice get it. Presumably by eating rotten junk?)
As recently as 1940, Bubonic Plague was being used as a weapon of war. The Japanese dropped plague-infested fleas on a city in China, and people got sick and died. Apparently there are still 1,000 – 3,000 cases of Bubonic Plague diagnosed each year, and 10-15 in the United States. Now, people can take antibiotics and get well. In 1666, they would just die.
One reason Year of Wonders amazed me so, is that so many characters in the book believed that the Plague was some sort of message from God—a punishment for sins and a statement that they’d better shape up. (If you believe in an unmerciful God sending a great flood, why not the Bubonic Plague?) The seventeenth century was still a time when many believed in the powers of witchcraft, so viewing a deadly disease as a punishment from God wasn’t a radical notion.
The narrator in the book comes to realize that some things just happen independent of God, and that Plague is one of them. And the town in the book is based on a real village in England that quarantined itself during the Plague of 1666, so I could enjoy the “it’s true!” aspect that I love about nonfiction, at the same time soaking in the pleasures of a solid novel.