Readers' Review: "Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague" By Geraldine Brooks

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:53
Thanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. For this month's Readers' Review, we've chosen a book one reviewer called a superb work of historical fiction. It's based on the true story of residents of a 17th century English village who quarantined themselves to protect others from the plague. Joining me in the studio to talk about "Year of Wonders," by Geraldine Brooks, Lynn Neary of NPR, Dane Kennedy of George Washington University and author, Sena Jeter Naslund.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:31
I invite you to be part of the program, call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning everyone. Thanks for being here.

MS. LYNN NEARY

11:07:49
Good morning, Diane. Good to be here.

MS. SENA JETER NASLUND

11:07:50
Good morning, Diane.

MR. DANE KENNEDY

11:07:50
Good morning, Diane.

REHM

11:07:51
Good to have you all. Dane Kennedy, what do you see as the significance of the title of this book?

KENNEDY

11:08:01
Well, it's kind of an odd title in some ways, isn't it? "Year of Wonders," when in fact, it's a novel about horrors.

REHM

11:08:09
Horrors.

KENNEDY

11:08:10
But actually wonder is a word that has multiple meanings and I actually looked this because I was puzzled as well. But Wonder also means inexplicable, it means a miracle, it means feelings of puzzlement, doubt. So there's a way in which she's drawing up on perhaps an older sense of the word Wonder and bringing it into play. But it's also, I think, she means to suggest that it's about wonder in a contemporary sense as well.

REHM

11:08:46
Sena, tell me what you thought of the novel, did you like it and if so, how much?

NASLUND

11:08:57
Diane, I really liked this novel a great deal. I think that it deals with significant subjects. The structure of it is beautifully wrought. She has tremendous range in her style from the voice of a minister to the voice of a mother speaking to her dying child. And the book as a whole, I think, is one of great significance.

REHM

11:09:17
How about you, Lynn Neary?

NEARY

11:09:19
Well, I am a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks. This is the fourth of her novels that I've read and many people had told me this was her best novel. And as I started it, I thought, oh I think they're right, I think this is the one I'm going to like the best. But I have to say, no matter how much we're going to get into the ending but when we got to the end I loved where she wanted to take the character, I loved where she wanted to take the reader, I like it when an author completes a story, I love that. But I just didn't buy it at the end.

REHM

11:09:50
Yeah. I understand.

NEARY

11:09:51
What happened in the end. And so that left me not loving it as much as I thought.

REHM

11:09:56
Okay. Let's not talk about the ending as yet, but we can get to that. This book has been out for a number of years and I must say, I do love the book. The story telling is magical and the story itself is based on a true story. What do we know about the real English town of Eyam, Dane?

KENNEDY

11:10:26
Well, we don't know a great deal, but we do know that this was a town in the midlands of England, in the peak districts so kind of a mountainous area where the plague broke out in 1665, shortly after it broke out in London. And that the citizens of the village decided for reasons that are not clear to anyone that they would quarantine themselves to prevent the plague from spreading to neighboring communities. They did so and so for, I think, over a year, they cut themselves off in a very systematic way from the surrounding neighborhoods. And the result was about presumable two-thirds to three-quarters of the population died of the plague.

REHM

11:11:12
Wow. And in this story that Geraldine Brooks writes, the plague is brought to her little town on the clothing, the blanket of a stranger who comes and stays at the maids home, her husband has already died, he dies in a tragic accident. So she invites this stranger in, he almost immediately becomes very sick and we know that bad things are coming, Lynn.

NEARY

11:11:50
Absolutely. And I have to say, I didn't know as I started this novel, that this was an absolutely true story about this town. So I was totally just fascinated by -- I think right from the beginning the idea that this man who was staying at her house, he -- George Vickers, he was a tailor and he brought cloth with him from London and it was in that cloth that the bacteria -- that they called the seeds of the plague, that's where the bacteria was. And so I was just fascinated because it made total sense to me that this stranger came into the town and he started making dresses for all the women and...

REHM

11:12:32
And sick...

NEARY

11:12:33
...he brought these beautiful stylish dresses. He made one for her and apparently she was a very attractive woman and she put it on and she loved it. And after it -- when he died, he said, burn them, and none of the women wanted their dresses burned.

REHM

11:12:46
Clothing burned.

NEARY

11:12:47
They loved the dresses so much, so they all took the dresses and that's how it spread in the town. What a great -- and it's based on truth that it really did -- the plague did get there through cloth but she created this incredible story of how people would not give up these wonderful clothes and that's how the plague spread.

REHM

11:13:04
And, Sena, it makes you wonder when the outcome of the story is almost known from the beginning. How do you...

NASLUND

11:13:16
Yes, it does.

REHM

11:13:16
...create suspense?

NASLUND

11:13:19
Well, Geraldine is a master of creating suspense throughout this novel. One of the suspense lines has to do with what's going to be the situation for Anna, our main character in terms of men. And her husband has died, as you said, but George Vickers comes into the scene and provides a romantic interest for a little while, for us. Since he dies, the romantic thread is still waiving in the breeze and it must be picked up again later on in the novel. I think we anticipate some sort of romance with the Rector of the town, with Michael. And so, suspense is created in that way.

NASLUND

11:14:02
It's interesting in the burning of the clothes, that Anna is the person, the one person who does burn her beautiful dress because she trusts and believes in George Vickers. He's a complex character, right up front even though he doesn't stay in the novel very long, he's treated in a way that's most interesting. He's also having a, sort of, fun affair with another woman in the village at the same time he's seriously pursuing Anna.

REHM

11:14:29
So we've got all kinds of potential relationships going on. The Vicker, himself, the Rector himself is married to a lovely woman with whom Anna becomes very, very good friends especially once the plague hits. But even before then, the two are quite close. Two women who share the caring for the Rector, Lynn.

NEARY

11:15:03
Yes, and it's a very interesting relationship because, as you were just saying, as we were just saying, there are a couple of different men characters that Anna is attracted to. But I think you wonder at a time if she -- what is her attraction to Eleanor. Eleanor is like a teacher, almost like a mother to her...

REHM

11:15:20
Exactly.

NEARY

11:15:21
...she teaches her how to -- how to...

REHM

11:15:22
Even though they're the same age.

NEARY

11:15:24
Yeah, they're the same age but Anna is the maid, Eleanor is...

REHM

11:15:29
The Rector's wife.

NEARY

11:15:29
...the Rector's wife, her boss. But they develop this very close relationship and as the plague goes on, of course, the two of them are the, you know, the core of the care -- people who are caring for those who are sick. And they begin to learn how to take care of people. But there's this -- they love each other so deeply and Anna kind of falls in love with her in a certain kind of...

REHM

11:15:53
Yes, she does, yes she does. But tell me why the Rector makes the decision, that for the sake of the town, for the sake of other people outside the town, that this quarantine has to be imposed, Dane?

KENNEDY

11:16:18
Well, my sense is that there are actually two reasons at work here. One is an appreciation that if this doesn't happen, then this kind of horror is going to spread. So he does recognize that, but he also sees this as an opportunity to test and effect the faith. I think of his community and to see what God's will is going to reek on them. So...

REHM

11:16:44
Maybe testing his own faith?

KENNEDY

11:16:46
And his own faith, yes. That's a good point, yeah, absolutely.

NASLUND

11:16:49
I think there's also an element of a desire to control and to dominate in the Rector. And he is really a very powerful speaker and a very powerful person. And he wrought's kind of magic over the community by making them follow him. It's interesting, that at the end of the book, he repudiates his decision and says he was wrong to do this. So there's movement in his character and growth in his character as well as in the other characters.

REHM

11:17:21
Lynn?

NEARY

11:17:22
I have a feeling that I was more naive then all of you about the Rector because I fell for him whole heartedly.

REHM

11:17:29
Did you really?

NEARY

11:17:29
From -- it took a while for me to realize that he had a -- there was another side to him that was this, I don't think self righteous is the right word, but certainly interested in testing his own faith and the faith of the people that were his followers, perhaps more then he should have. But all -- for most of the book, I think I thought that he had pretty pure motives.

REHM

11:17:54
But pure in a sense of purity, perhaps gone one step too far?

NEARY

11:18:01
Yes. And I realized that eventually, but...

REHM

11:18:03
Yeah, Anna notices, for example, that there's not a lot of affection, at least outwardly between Eleanor and her husband. She wonders a little about that, but sees the two of them as holiness personified. We're going to take a short break here. We're going to open the phones because, after all, this is a Readers' Review and you too are our readers. We invite you to join us, call us 800-433-8850.

REHM

11:20:04
And welcome back for this month's Readers' Review. And of course that means you as well. We've chosen Geraldine Brooks' National Best Seller. It's titled "Year of Wonders" and it is a novel of the plague, a plague which took place in the 1700s. And actually it was 1666 wasn't it, something like that?

KENNEDY

11:20:36
'65, '66, yes.

REHM

11:20:38
Yeah, exactly, in England. And Geraldine placed her story in that era and followed what happened when that village in which the plague began quarantined itself so it would not affect others in neighboring villages. Here in the studio, Lynn Neary. She's an NPR correspondent covering books and publishing. Dane Kennedy is professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. And Sena Jeter Naslund is, of course, the author of "Ahab's Wife." She joins us from Louisville Public Radio.

REHM

11:21:30
We do have a couple of spots to be read and, Dane, there's a lot of superstition in this story. And one of the passages you're going to read for us has to do with witches.

KENNEDY

11:21:49
Yes, okay. "It is one thing for a pastor's wife to have such learning and another thing again for a widow woman of my sort. I knew how easy it is for a widow to be turned witch in the common mind. And the first cause generally is that she meddles somehow in medicinals. We had had a witch scare in the village when I was but a girl, and the one who had stood accused Mem Goudy was the cunning woman to whom all looked for remedies and poultices and help with confinements.

KENNEDY

11:22:22
It had been a cruel year of scant harvest and many women miscarried. When one strange pair of twins was stillborn, fused together at the breastbone many had begun muttering of devilment and their eyes turned to Widow Goudy clamoring upon her as a witch. Mr. Stanley took it upon himself to test the accusation taking Mem Goudy with him alone into a field and spending many hours there dealing with her solemnly.

KENNEDY

11:22:47
I do not know by what tests he tried her, but after he declared that he conceived her entirely innocent as to that evil and upgraded the men and women who had accused her. But he also had harsh words for Mem saying she defied God's will in telling folk that they could prevent illness with their teas and sachets and simples. Mr. Stanley believed that sickness was sent by God to test and chastise those souls he would save. If we sought to evade such we would miss the lessons God willed us to learn at the cost of worst torments after our death."

REHM

11:23:25
Certainly one of the early demonstrations of natural forms of medication and yet Mem Goudy is accused of witchery.

KENNEDY

11:23:38
Right. And one of the interesting things I think about this passage is the way in which she's attempting to, in some sense, reverse or challenge the kinds of conceptions that certainly those contemporaries had, but in some way, perhaps have lasted on. That is to say Mem Goudy, the herbalist, is seen as a kind of quasi modern medicine person, a rationalist and the like. Whereas Mr. Stanley, who's the Puritan past minister is really the representative of -- in some sense, of superstition.

REHM

11:24:15
Godly thinking.

KENNEDY

11:24:16
Godly thinking, but thinking that obviously isn't going to sort of aid the community.

REHM

11:24:21
And of course, Ana has her own doubts about her faith, Lynn. And you're going to read the passage for us.

NEARY

11:24:31
Yes. I'm going to read a passage. This is where she is sitting with a woman named Maggie Cantwell who was a cook for the very wealthy family in town who has fled, who left and left the people who work for them behind. And Maggie Cantwell, with another young man, tried to leave the town and got chased back literally when people in another town recognized them as coming from the plagued town as it was called.

NEARY

11:24:57
And she -- it's such a terrible experience. What happens to them is she has what I think is a stroke. And just before this, Ana has gone to the tavern to try and get help from her father who is a horrible man.

REHM

11:25:09
Horrible, horrible man.

NEARY

11:25:10
And she has a terrible, terrible scene with him. So she's very shaken by that and she's sitting with Maggie Cantwell at this point. And she says, "while I was at the tavern she had been struck by another spasm that had turned her good side useless. She lay now in a deep unnatural seeming sleep from which no word or touch could rouse her. I reached for her hand where it lay on the coverlet all twisted in upon itself, shapeless as if it had been boned. I straightened her fingers, strong from the kneading of dough and the lifting of heavy pans, scarred here and there with the white marks of the old knife nicks or the pink pucker of the healed burn.

NEARY

11:25:50
As I had at George Vickers' bedside and again at Mem Goudy's, I thought of all the varied skills that reposed in Maggie Cantwell. This big woman who knew how to hack a haunch out of a side of venison, but also how to fashion fancies of the finest spun sugar. She was an economical cook who never wasted so much as a pea pod, but boiled it in the stockpot to extract whatever nourishment it might yet contain. Why, I wondered, was God so much more prodigal with his creation? Why did he raise us up out of the clay to acquire good and expedient skills and then send us back so soon to be dust when we yet had useful years before us?

NEARY

11:26:31
And why should this good woman lie here in such extremity when a man like my father lived to waste his reason in drunkenness? This time I did not have many hours to dwell on these troubling questions. Maggie Cantwell was gone before midnight. So I think that's the heart of the question -- the heart of this book is that question and it's a question we all ask ourselves all the time any time we're in a terrible situation. Why did this happen to someone I love? Why did this happen to a good person?"

NEARY

11:27:01
And a lot of times we say there's no real answer, but I think there is and I think this book explores that. I think when you're in that kind of situation you ask those kinds of questions. It can depend your faith. It can also lead you to not believe in God, to reject God entirely. Or it can lead you, which I think happens with Ana eventually, perhaps to leave the faith of your childhood behind and come to some new kind of faith or new kind of understanding. And we see those three things happen to characters throughout this book. It's not a simple question and there are no simple answers.

REHM

11:27:38
And even to Ana's own children, let us not forget, who all succumb to the plague. I'm struck, Sena, by the language that Geraldine Brooks uses. It's so rhythmic, it's almost as though every sentence becomes enemata poetic.

NASLUND

11:28:03
Well, that's certainly true and I think that one of the wonders of her language is how flexible it is that it can discuss abstract issues, and it can also recreate the world for us through concrete imagery. This line of thought that we're developing about what sometimes philosophers call the problem of evil, is one that is drawn all the way through the book. And I'd really like to read a passage that is in line with the other two...

REHM

11:28:34
Please.

NASLUND

11:28:34
...passages we have just heard. This is nearer the end of the book. And Ana asks, why, I wonder--and that word wonder is one of the things that's drawn all through this book as we heard in the last passage why, I wonder, did this good woman die, Maggie Cantwell, when her evil father survived. But in my passage why, I wonder, do we, all of us, even the rector seek to put the plague in unseen hands. "Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God or the evil working of the devil in the world?

NASLUND

11:29:12
One of these beliefs we embraced. The other we scorned as superstition. But perhaps each was false equally. Perhaps the plague was neither of God nor the devil but simply a thing in nature as the stone on which we stub a toe. While these thoughts were vexing they brought with them also a chink of light, for if we could be allowed to see the plague as a thing in nature merely we do not have to trouble about some grand celestial design that had to be completed before the disease would abate.

NASLUND

11:29:50
We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare knowing that when he found the tools and the method and the resolve we would free ourselves no matter if we were a village full of sinners or a host of saints."

REHM

11:30:08
Just wonderful, Sena. I'm so glad you read that. Here's a question from Megan. I'll be interested in how you all hear this. She says, "I'm wondering if you could speak to the language that Geraldine Brooks uses in this book. To what extent is the language historically accurate? It seemed to me the language would slip in and out of a kind of historical way of speaking, even with the varying levels of status within the village. Dane, what do you think?

KENNEDY

11:30:52
I don't think the language itself is particularly historical. I mean, I think that certainly she's done a lot of historical research and she captures a place in time very well. But in terms of the language that strikes me as pretty modern.

REHM

11:31:08
Sena, how about you?

NASLUND

11:31:10
Well, I think she flavors the generally modern flow of language with vocabulary from the past. She speaks of the color brown as dying leaf for example. And she speaks of kindling as bavins and she speaks of marriage as a handfast. So I think that there's a flavoring of the language with the language of the 17th century, but it would be impossible to write entirely in that language because her modern readers wouldn't understand what she was saying if she completely replicated that language.

REHM

11:31:45
Lynn.

NASLUND

11:31:45
You know, just try reading Dryden's poem in the beginning. It's tough. It took me ten readings to get the meaning of that and most readers won't do that. So I don't demand of her that she be absolutely consistent in her vocabulary. I think it's part of her power that she's able to flavor the language, but still engage modern readers.

REHM

11:32:07
Lynn.

NEARY

11:32:08
I think that's just a perfect way to describe it, flavoring the language because there are words that she uses that are clearly words we don't use anymore for -- I forget the word she uses for what I think of as a cottage but there's a word that she uses that is clearly from that time, not from now. And so it gives you that sense. It gives you that feel that you are reading something that is historically accurate. But I do think the relationships, for instance, she probably plays with the relationships almost makes them even more modern or contemporary than they probably would have been at that time I think.

REHM

11:32:47
Lynn Neary. She's an NPR correspondent covering books and publishing and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. We'll open the phones. First to South Lyon, Mich. Good morning, Eric, you're on the air.

ERIC

11:33:09
Good morning. I thought you might be interested. I grew up in Devonshire. I know the village very well. You're mispronouncing it. The correct pronunciation is (word?) .

REHM

11:33:20
Oh, I'm so glad you've corrected me. Thank you.

ERIC

11:33:25
And it's interesting that you just had a discussion about the language used. That area of Devonshire actually speaks with a very strong dialect but most Americans wouldn't understand even today. But the village is still in existence. It's very proud of its heritage, but it's very isolated and it's always kind of shunned tourism and it's shunned the whole idea of being a plague village.

REHM

11:33:57
Dane, do you want to add to that?

KENNEDY

11:34:00
Well, I think his point about it being very isolated is an important one and, in fact, helps to account for its success in quarantining itself. If it had been sort of the intersection of various trade routes and the like that would've been probably almost impossible to achieve. But given the fact that it is sort of in this mountainous area of mining and so on that made it that much more feasible.

REHM

11:34:27
Did virtually everyone in this village die with very few exceptions, Eric?

ERIC

11:34:37
My understanding was a fair percentage of them died but also a number survived. The church there -- the graveyard in the church of course is full of victims from the plague but I do believe a number survived. And one of the ways they survived was by their trading to get food was done at the edges of the village. And even to this day you can find the depressions in the walls that they filled with vinegar. And they would put the money to pay for their food in these depressions by using vinegar as a (word?) .

REHM

11:35:19
Purifier, yes. Wow. What a story.

NASLUND

11:35:23
I love the meditation that Ana has near the end when she's sitting next to the boundary stone and puts her hand in one of those declivities and thinks someone in the future will be doing this and not know why there is a declivity in this particular place. There's a wonderful range of sort of future flashing in that writing.

REHM

11:35:43
I should say. Eric, thank you so much for sharing with us. And to Wareham, Mass., good morning, Sheila.

SHEILA

11:35:54
Oh, good morning, Diane. Thank you.

REHM

11:35:56
Certainly.

SHEILA

11:35:57
I was saying when I was younger, I lived in Sheffield and we were -- each weekend we would go out into the countryside, especially into Devonshire. And we would take a bus through a little -- to a little village called Hathersage incidentally where Little John is buried. He's Robin Hood's friend. And we would walk up a long very steep hill called the Sir William. Why it was named that, I don't know. I haven't been able to discover.

SHEILA

11:36:30
But we came to the village of Eyam and there was a well called Mompeasant's (sp?) well named after the minister in the area, I believe, the pastor, where villagers would leave their money. And then the people from outside would bring in supplies for them. So they did not meet each other. But I would say that Eyam is a small village in Devonshire. England being such a small country, I wouldn't say it's that isolated. It's on the bus route. And I guess that's about it.

REHM

11:37:11
Sheila, thank you so much. How fascinating to have these individuals who not only know the area, but know details about this very story. We have to take a short break here. And when we come back, we'll hear from more of our listeners and our guests. Stay with us.

REHM

11:40:04
And welcome back. I'm going to take another call, this time from Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Kathy, you're on the air.

KATHY

11:40:16
Good morning, Diane. I'm thrilled to be a caller on your show. Years ago I was drifting through the library on a Saturday afternoon hoping for an inspiration and I literally happened to pull "Year of Wonder" off the bookshelf and I read it. And it was such an engaging story that I subsequently have read all five books that Geraldine Brooks has written.

REHM

11:40:41
Well, I can certainly understand that. Geraldine is a wonderful writer.

KATHY

11:40:49
She came to Rochester several years ago as part of an authors lecture series and I had the opportunity to see her then as well and listen to her and hear a bit more about her varied background as a journalist. And now among friends of mine who are readers, that book is always the first book that I recommend.

REHM

11:41:10
Isn't that terrific. And by the way, Kathy, I'll be up in Rochester sometime next month.

KATHY

11:41:19
Yes, November 16.

REHM

11:41:20
Good. I look forward to seeing you then. Thanks for calling. Anybody want to comment? You have said, Lynn, that this is not your favorite...

NEARY

11:41:33
Well...

REHM

11:41:33
...of Geraldine's books.

NEARY

11:41:34
...as I said, at the beginning I thought maybe this is going to be my favorite. I think maybe in the end -- I was trying to think about it. I think maybe "March" is still my favorite...

REHM

11:41:43
"March" is fantastic.

NEARY

11:41:43
...which is the book where she takes the -- and I have to say, I was a big -- I loved "Little Women" as a child, so in that book she takes the father from that story and tells his story. And it was such a revelation for somebody who grew up with those books, then to think about where the father had been in the Civil War...

REHM

11:42:03
Yeah, exactly.

NEARY

11:42:04
...the whole time that this other at home, domestic story was taking place with the girls, with Marmee. So I love that book. I loved "Caleb's Crossing" which was her last book, that I don't think got as much attention as some of her other books. And this is a...

REHM

11:42:18
But it was wonderful, yeah.

NEARY

11:42:19
Oh, it's a wonderful book. And she tells the story of the first Native American to go to Harvard.

REHM

11:42:25
Who goes to Harvard, yeah.

NEARY

11:42:27
And the relationship that -- the friendship that he has with a young woman who is one of the colonists. And, oh, that is just a great story and a wonderful -- again, what she does, what I love about this book, finding these little historical moments and then creating these wonderful narratives around them that brings the history to life in this fantastic way. And the combination of her sort of journalistic detail with her story telling skills, I just think that she's a great writer.

REHM

11:43:03
See, now, without absolutely giving away the final pages of this book, I wonder about your thoughts. I just found the ending a little too farfetched. How did you feel?

NASLUND

11:43:24
Yes, I had some of that problem with it myself and Lynn mentioned that she had as well. We don't give away the ending, but let's say that the isolation that Anna experiences in her village is broken in a radical way. She sails away and in fact she becomes a member of a Muslim community in North Africa. And it's uncertain to me whether Geraldine's intention -- what her intention is thematically at the end of the book. Much of the book has been about the status of women, about the male domination of women. The minister even says that he's like God and he's the head of the household in the same way. And women are seen as dangerous if they learn things.

NASLUND

11:44:17
But in this community that she's joined, she feels this sort of freedom from the old repression, but in fact she's putting on her veil before she goes outside. And so there is a kind of repression of women in this place as well. She -- Anna says that she doesn't expect to ever leave there, but almost immediately she says, well, but maybe she might. And I think that Anna is not made into the perfect character who knows all the answers, but that she develops one answer after another. And when it is exhausted for her, she is able to move on. That's part of her survival and...

REHM

11:44:57
And her strength, yes.

NASLUND

11:44:57
...part of my interest in her character, and her strength, yes.

KENNEDY

11:45:02
Yeah, the conclusion of the novel, I'm sure for many readers, must seem improbable.

REHM

11:45:07
Jarring, jarring.

KENNEDY

11:45:09
And jarring.

REHM

11:45:10
Jarring.

KENNEDY

11:45:11
But a lot of research has been done in recent years by historians that has demonstrated that in that period, in fact, there was a remarkable amount of movement of people across these cultural boundaries. I just refer you to one really quite remarkable book by the historian, Linda Colley, called "The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh," which traces the experience of a woman, an Englishwoman, who is captured by pirates, taken to North Africa, made a part of a harem, is redeemed, then goes off to America, then goes to India. This is an extraordinary -- it's a global story. And this is a woman of about the same period of modest background and education who...

REHM

11:45:58
Interesting.

KENNEDY

11:45:59
...yeah, who really sort of does amazing things.

REHM

11:46:02
And the title of that book, again, because I know our listeners will...

KENNEDY

11:46:06
Sure.

REHM

11:46:07
...want to know.

KENNEDY

11:46:08
"The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh."

REHM

11:46:10
And who is the author?

KENNEDY

11:46:12
Linda Colley.

REHM

11:46:13
All right.

KENNEDY

11:46:13
C-O-L-L-E-Y.

REHM

11:46:14
Okay. Let's -- Sena, you wanted to add something.

NASLUND

11:46:20
I do think that Geraldine is trying to expand the scope of her book by what she does in the end. She wants this book to be as significant as it possibly can be. And I think it is a significant exploration of religious belief, of community versus individual, of the relatedness of women to each other. In his recent memoir, Frye Gaillard, and "The Books That Mattered," that's his title from New South Books, talks about this book as being a significant one that reaches as high and goes as deep as any that he knows. And I would -- he calls it one of the first classics of our new century.

NASLUND

11:47:08
And I think that the book earns that kind of respect that Frye Gaillard gives it in his "The Books That Mattered." And I certainly give it an enormous amount of respect. I can't deny that there's something bumpy about the ending. I think mainly it's a matter of pace. I think that the ending section perhaps goes too quickly. But the reader is exhausted by this time and a writer sometimes knows how much a reader can take. So I think it's...

REHM

11:47:33
And wants to get it over with maybe.

NASLUND

11:47:36
And, yes, indeed. One of my friends said about one of my books that she could tell my horse could smell the barn. And that does happen sometimes, you gallop off. By the way, there's a very interesting horse in this story that...

REHM

11:47:48
That's true.

NASLUND

11:47:48
...has an odd name.

REHM

11:47:49
That's true. Sena Jeter Naslund is, of course, the author of "Ahab's Wife." Here's a wonderful email from Greta in Arlington, Va. She said, "I loved the book. Its big point I think is the dawning of the enlightenment ideas among the main characters. Anna and even Elinor consider that diseases of the natural world are neither divine punishment nor the dealings of the devil. I was reminded that even today there are people who assign godly causation to natural disasters." Lynn Neary, any comment?

NEARY

11:48:41
Well, I think one of the very interesting things we haven't talked about that much is the lesson she had in becoming a healer, heading towards being -- as we say at the end of the book she's a midwife, but she also has a mentor, if you want to put it that way, and the man that she finally meets at the end of the book when she ends up in North Africa is a doctor. He's actually a Muslim medical doctor. And she respects that...

REHM

11:49:15
Totally.

NEARY

11:49:15
...medicine, so she's made this journey in the book, a number of different journeys. One of them is from at the beginning learning from the Gowdies about they had this herbal garden, they are the midwives, they are the people that the village goes to for help, and they reject them at the beginning of the plague. Then she and Elinor take on this role. And then eventually she ends up being this midwife under the auspices of this Muslim medical doctor.

REHM

11:49:42
Right.

NEARY

11:49:43
So there's quite a journey there...

REHM

11:49:44
Yeah.

NEARY

11:49:45
...of her own education into what disease might really be about and how it might be healed, leaving the superstition, as we were talking about earlier, behind and heading towards a real understanding of science and the role of science in healing.

REHM

11:50:01
All right. To Richfield, Ohio. Good morning, Linda.

LINDA

11:50:05
Good morning, Diane. It's so wonderful to speak with you and to hear you sounding wonderful.

REHM

11:50:10
Thank you.

LINDA

11:50:13
Actually, I belonged to a women's North American expat club when I lived in England. And one of the books that we read was the "Year of Wonders." It's been several years, so it's been wonderful listening to your account of the tale again. But we did actually go to the village and visit, and it was so far from the midlands. It was quite a drive for us to get up there, but we made it. And about 15 of us, American expats, walked around this village.

LINDA

11:50:43
And it really was a wonder to us the whole time that we were there. There is a museum in the center of the village that has a lot of detail about the plague, so your first caller when he spoke about, oh, that they didn't want to go on much about it, they actually do go on much about it now. And the one thing that we were left with was how far away London is from this place. And, you know, that in and of itself was a wonder that this tailor brought these seeds with him such a far distance.

REHM

11:51:18
When you talk about a far distance, how far is Derbyshire from London? Do we know, Linda?

LINDA

11:51:29
Well, I know that from the midlands our journey took us about three or four hours drive...

REHM

11:51:35
I see.

LINDA

11:51:35
...to get up there.

REHM

11:51:36
Yeah.

LINDA

11:51:37
So you figure, you know, from the midlands, two hours at least to Central London, so that would've been quite a distance to traverse and travail in those times.

REHM

11:51:47
And tell me, Linda, how you found the people there. Were they warm? Were they welcoming? Or sort of quiet and unto themselves?

LINDA

11:52:02
I wouldn't say that they were warm, but they certainly were well accustomed to visitors bringing in the commercial trade that was necessary I would say for the subsistence of that village. We had lunch there. As I said, we went to the museum and paid a fee to get into the museum.

REHM

11:52:24
Oh, her call dropped. I'm glad you called, Linda. It was good to talk with you. The fact that they have created a museum says to me that this was such an important event, not only in the lives of the villagers themselves, but to the entire area. Dane.

KENNEDY

11:52:50
Well, I think probably what's going on -- it'd be interesting to know when that museum was established, but England certainly depends very much upon the tourist industry, the heritage industry...

REHM

11:53:02
Of course.

KENNEDY

11:53:02
...and my suspicion this is something that probably is fairly recent.

REHM

11:53:07
Dane Kennedy is professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to the Kiawah Islands in South Carolina. Shawnene, welcome.

SHAWNENE

11:53:29
Thank you. Hi, Diane.

REHM

11:53:31
Hi.

SHAWNENE

11:53:32
I really appreciated your comment about how well Geraldine Brooks is able to take a little tiny snapshot of history and make it real and make it readable and knowable to people in today. I don't think she's done that better in any of her books than she did in "People of the Book." And since you had some fans of hers there, I just wonder if they shared my appreciation. She took the Sarajevo Haggadah and took it through many centuries and I thought is one of her best books ever.

REHM

11:54:08
Lynn Neary.

NEARY

11:54:10
I love that one too, I have to say. As I said, I'm a big Geraldine Brooks' fan. But that was fascinating because there were so many stories in that book as well. I read a few years back, so you'll have to remind me, but she weaves these different stories together. She takes the book and then the different people who had contact with book over the years.

REHM

11:54:31
With a book.

NEARY

11:54:33
Yes.

REHM

11:54:33
With a particular book.

NEARY

11:54:34
With a particular book. And it's a beautiful book. I don't know if you've ever seen it. I've seen a copy of it actually. And I think it's really interesting the fact that, for instance, in this book when we were talking about the ending, it's something I wanted to say, and this -- I think this is how she does her work. She was -- this was her first -- "Year of Wonders" was her first work of fiction.

REHM

11:54:56
Fiction.

NEARY

11:54:56
Before that she had been a journalist. She'd been working in the Middle East. I read an interview where she said she wanted to show how women can be changed through unusual, terrible circumstances, how they can, you know, leave behind a small village and somehow gain the strength and the knowledge and the understanding to do extraordinary things.

NEARY

11:55:18
And she wanted to write about that kind of woman because she had seen it as a journalist. She had seen it for real. And so that's where the idea of Anna came from. And she also wrote a book before this, a work of nonfiction about Muslim women. And so that makes me understand that's where the ending comes from. So all that, the way that she draws from real experience, real life, real history and creates fiction, it's terrific. And, yes, I love...

REHM

11:55:46
It's a wonder.

NEARY

11:55:47
It's a wonder.

REHM

11:55:49
All right. And let's go to Arlington, Texas for our last caller. Good morning, Donald, very quickly, please.

DONALD

11:55:59
Yes. This particular topic with Eyam was covered rather ably in "Secrets of the Dead." And it's discovered that descendants of this particular village, if they have two copies of a particular gene, it's called Delta 32, they are immune to HIV.

REHM

11:56:20
How fascinating. Had you ever heard that, Sena?

NASLUND

11:56:25
No, but I am fascinated by that. I think that's a wonderful piece of information.

REHM

11:56:29
Yeah. Has -- I wonder if that has been confirmed over and over, Donald. Do you know?

DONALD

11:56:38
It's a recent study, but what they found is that the general population of survivors of the plague from Northern Europe, there's a preponderant of individuals who have two copies, if both lines have this gene, then they will more likely be HIV resistant.

REHM

11:57:02
Interesting. Well, on that note we'll have to end our conversation. The book we've been talking about "Year of Wonders" by Geraldine Brooks. Lynn Neary, Dane Kennedy and Sena Jeter Naslund, thank you all so much.

KENNEDY

11:57:23
Thank you, Diane.

NEARY

11:57:23
Thank you.

NASLUND

11:57:23
Thank you so much, Diane.

REHM

11:57:24
And for next month's Readers' Review, we're going to look at Tom Wolfe's first novel "Bonfire of the Vanities," and that will be on Wednesday, November 28. Do join us. I look forward to being with you. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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