I picked up the novel Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks at the height of COVID-19. I am fascinated by history, in particular the lives of those who have lived before us. I wanted to read more about the history of pandemics. What happened? How did they deal with this? What could we learn from them? Fast forward several months and I have just finished reading this haunting book. The story is told in first person and is about a young woman living through the Great Plague of London. Needless to say, the story is brutal in many ways. It is not for the faint of heart. There’s a lot of death, grief, and torment. There are some parts that go into detail of some of the atrocities they experienced in this time period. Is it historically accurate? Absolutely. Is it also very hard to read? Also, absolutely.
“For the hour in which I am able to lose myself in someone else’s thoughts is the greatest relief I can find from the burden of my own…”
In spite of that, I found that I could not put it down, no matter how much the story was simply heartbreaking. Seeing how the characters of this story survived and persevered through it all was wholly worth it. People oftentimes joke about the depressing nature of the stories that people continue to read. But, I would like to argue that it’s not the depressing nature of stories that draw people, like myself, to them. It’s being given the hope that life still goes on even after someone goes through trials. It’s watching the friends you make through books persevere in the hard times. Frankly, I get much more inspiration out of a character finding beauty in the sun rise after a month of grieving a loved one than reading about a character finding happiness after a break up. And really, wouldn’t the sun rise be more meaningful? That’s what these stories are for.
There was a particular scene in this novel that had an impact on me. After Anna, the main character, had gone through horrific tragedies after losing her husband to a mining accident and 2 young children to the plague, she went on to heal others. She lost her dear friend whom she learned under and worked with. She had seen many deaths and watched as her community lost their families. The plague got better and they were able to travel again, though the impact was still there. After her friend died, she worked endlessly as she tried to console her friend’s widow, the rector, whom she worked for. After almost a year of no reprieve from her duties and loss of hope, she rode off with the neglected horse of his behind the rectory over the field. The moment when the horse picked up speed the thought came to her mind that she had survived. In her mind she spoke these words, “We live, we live, we live.” The line is simple, but holds so much weight in light of the tragic events. It was if she were saying we will live now that the plague is gone. And we will continue living even after so much loss and grief. It reminded me the cost of living but also the gratitude we should have in being alive. I recommend this book to those that are able to read very hard things. If you do take the jump, be aware, it is a book that stays with you.
Ultimately, when we read a book, let’s not shy away from the hard stories, the stories that challenge us. These are the stories that can often help shape us. (I’m not arguing to read these hard stories for the sake of thrill). But, the stories that we struggle to read can often have a greater good to them. It’s often there we find the beauty of what is being taught all the more apparent. The lessons hold more weight to them. And the gratitude of what we have is made all the greater for it.