Based on the true story of an English midland town in the year 1666 that quarantined itself to sweat out the bubonic plague, Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague reminds me of the private school campus where I live with my family in the suburbs of Baltimore, the year 2012. We are a small community, and when people get sick other people know it. Our reaction to illness, then, as now, is what is fascinating to me.
A culture existed in 1666 that was used to hardship and illness. “It is folly to love an infant,” the townspeople tell the book’s main character, Anna Frith, when she so publicly grieves the death of her son. There are disgorge-the-contents-of-your-belly descriptions of mine accidents, the smeared-face stonings of supposed witches, death rattles, “surrounded in her own gore” descriptions of birth rooms, and child-drownings. This book is not for the brittle. It is horrific, but it is not horror. It is human life, really graphic. As I’ll admit I have done, people don’t just drop off food and skedaddle when they hear of a neighbor’s illness. Back in 1666 they come in, sit by the bed, and wipe the spittle from the fitful hollowed-out lips of their friends. Imagine. I’ve got no kit for such a thing, no “whisket” from which Anna dishes out oatcakes, salves, and cotton for the tending of wounds.
I think that’s why I liked it so much. Most of us live in a brittle world in which we have learned to recoil at suffering. We are at a remove from death and birth, from the slimy, the wet, and the phlegmy. We are at a remove from the muck with which our not so distant relatives were well acquainted: sickness, the frailty of the body, the truth of how much we need each other. Frequently, we don’t deal with life well when it raises it’s head menacingly, mockingly, grotesquely, as it sometimes still does. It’s fucking scary when someone gets sick; call in the professionals, and hie ye to ye therapist.
At least half of the book’s length is devoted to how to get healing roots or worts out of the ground, and how to care for “buboes,” the revolting sores that reveal themselves on a plague victim’s groin or neck. There were no doctors or grief counselors. It would be your neighbor lancing your wound with a hot poker, or making you vervain tea with her grandmother-knowledge. I wouldn’t want this–it’s medieval. But I would like half of Anna Frith’s courage. It’s a feminist tale, in that Anna grows greater than her place in history would have her be. She defies her minister and Puritan law, and comes to believe, atheistically, that, as we said in the ‘80s: Shit Just Happens. Plague is no act of God, it is nature, red in tooth and claw. Luckily, nature is also the newborn lamb, suckling, and gamboling.
And “When Shit Happens,” what makes Anna great for us moderns is that she does not turn her gaze from the swellings and the oozings of her fellows’ rheumy eyes, or from the ewe’s “red flower” as she births a breeched lamb. She does what she can with what she has in her whisket.