58 pages 1 hour read

Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


Year of Wonders (2001) is a historical fiction novel by Geraldine Brooks, tracing the 1666 outbreak of the bubonic plague in the English town of Eyam. When the town’s zealous rector, Michael Mompellion, and the community submit to a voluntary quarantine, young widow Anna Frith serves with the rector and his wife Elinor to minister to the townsfolk as the plague wreaks havoc. Through the eyes of 18-year-old Anna, the novel explores what happens when disaster strikes and fear pushes people to their limits physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The disaster leaves Anna questioning everything she believes about God and the nature of humanity.

This guide uses the 2001 Penguin edition.

Content Warning: The source material contains child death, extreme violence towards women, detailed descriptions of traumatic births, and painful death.

Plot Summary

In the spring of 1665, in Eyam, young widow Anna Frith supports herself and her two sons, Jamie and Tom, by keeping sheep and working as a housemaid for the town’s rector, Michael Mompellion, and his wife Elinor, as well as the wealthy Bradford family. She takes in a boarder, a young tailor from London named George Viccars, who quickly becomes Anna’s friend and a father figure to her boys as he regales them with stories from his travels.

Anna falls for George, but he becomes violently ill, and red circles appear on his body, along with a pus-filled sore on his neck. George dies, and rumors of his symptoms spark fear in the town as it resembles the dreaded plague. Days later, Anna’s neighbor discovers her son and Anna’s Jamie playing with a pile of dead rats, and her son becomes sick with the same symptoms. Anna loses her baby, Tom, and Jamie soon follows.

Having little time to mourn, Anna joins the Mompellions in helping their community as scores fall sick and die. Mr. Mompellion maintains his faith and assures his congregants that the contagion is a sign from God. He urges the town to submit to voluntary quarantine to prevent spreading the plague to neighboring villages, promising that God will reward their sacrifice and obedience. After setting up a contactless exchange of goods with the neighboring town to keep them supplied, Eyam severs all contact with the outside world. However, the Brandons refuse to comply and evacuate the city, leaving their servants homeless and creating a power vacuum in the town's social hierarchy. The Bradfords’ servants, Maggie Cantwell and Brand, are the last to leave Eyam at the marker they call The Boundary Stone.

The town already suspects the healer, Mem Gowdie, of witchcraft. As she and her niece Anys attempt to help the ailing, the townsfolk dismiss their plant medicine in favor of the practices of barber surgeons, such as bleeding with leeches. Having learned to read from Elinor Mompellion, Anna wants to learn more about plant medicine but fears stepping out of her station as a lower-class woman. As tensions rise in the town and fear grows, a mob accuses Mem of witchcraft. The mob tries to drown her to prove she is a witch. Anys steps in to save her aunt, but the crowd hangs her on the rope meant for Mem. Mem later dies from her injuries, and Anna and Elinor must take up the mantle of the healers to help their suffering friends. Anna studies Mem’s books to search for a remedy.

Mr. Mompellion emerges as an enigmatic leader, though he leans heavily on his faith and assures his followers that their suffering isn’t in vain. Anna and Elinor make salves and tinctures to soothe the villagers’ bodies. Mr. Mompellion and Anna discover evidence that villagers secretly use spells and charms to ward off the plague. They move church services outdoors to prevent disease from spreading, and Mr. Mompellion urges his followers not to fall into the trap of superstition. Anna wrestles with her faith and wonders how God could allow so much suffering. Brand returns with Maggie Cantwell because the neighboring town assaulted her with apples, and she suffered a stroke. Maggie dies, and Anna’s inner dilemma over faith intensifies.

Anna’s father, Josiah Bont, is an abusive drunkard who lives with his wife, the superstitious Aphra. When Mr. Mompellion needs help burying the bodies of plague victims, Anna convinces her father to help. Joss begins exploiting the grieving and charging them exorbitant prices for his service, waiting outside the homes of the sick and digging their graves before they even die, then demanding payment. Joss tries to kill Christopher Unwin and steals from his house, and the townsfolk demand justice. Since the plague prevents a legitimate court proceeding, the miner’s guild serves as the justice system. The Barmester sentences Joss to be pinned to the wall of the mine with a knife. Aphra can’t rescue him because her three sons fall ill, a rainstorm floods the mine, and Joss drowns before animals tear his body apart. Anna helps Aphra bury her father but notices that she conducts a pagan ritual over his grave.

Elinor and Anna aid Merry Wickford, the lone survivor in her family, in saving her claim on a mine seam. They begin noticing that the older members of the town aren’t dying from the plague, and they work to bolster the health of the survivors with tonics, hoping that it will strengthen them to fight the illness. Elinor becomes severely ill with a fever, and Anna fears the worst, but Elinor recovers. Mr. Mompellion asks everyone to scour their home and burn their belongings to cleanse the city. At the giant bonfire, Brand reveals that Aphra is the witch selling fake remedies and spells to everyone. They toss Aphra into a manure pit, and afterward, Aphra’s mental health spirals out of control. She begins performing rituals and spells with a snake, and when her last child, Faith, dies from the plague, she hangs the body from the cottage rafters.

The plague wanes, and the Mompellions hold a service of Thanksgiving. Aphra runs into the Dell carrying Faith’s decomposing body and wielding the knife used to pin Joss to the wall. Mr. Mompellion and Elinor stop her, but in the crush, Faith’s skull detaches from her spine, and Aphra fatally stabs Elinor before turning the knife on herself. Anna buries her stepmother near her father and helps bury Elinor in the churchyard. The Bradfords return, and Elizabeth, the daughter, comes to the rectory begging for help because her mother has become pregnant from an affair. Mompellion, who has fallen into despair, refuses to help and speaks blasphemous words against God.

Anna cares for Mr. Mompellion, and romantic feelings develop. They begin a sexual relationship, and Mr. Mompellion confesses to Anna that he withheld sex from Elinor because of her sin. Anna runs from him in horror to the church and finds Elizabeth, who says her mother is dying in childbirth. Anna helps deliver the baby girl, but Elizabeth tries to drown the infant in a bucket. Anna rescues the child and flees Eyam. She sails to Algeria and becomes a student of the healer Ahmed Bey, where she works as a midwife for his harem. She names the Bradford baby Aisha and gives birth to Mompellion’s daughter, Elinor.