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6 Burnside Literature- A to Z
6 Local Warehouse Literature- A to Z

Year of Wonders

by

Year of Wonders Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter One
Apple-picking Time

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there'd be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

They brought the apples yesterday, a cartload for the rectory cellar. Late pickings, of course: I saw brown spots on more than a few. I had words with the carter over it, but he told me we were lucky to get as good as we got, and I suppose it's true enough. There are so few people to do the picking. So few people to do anything. And those of us who are left walk around as if we're half asleep. We are all so tired.

I took an apple that was crisp and good and sliced it, thin as paper, and carried it into that dim room where he sits, still and silent. His hand is on the Bible, but he never opens it. Not anymore. I asked him if he'd like me to read it to him. He turned his head to look at me, and I started. It was the first time he'd looked at me in days. I'd forgotten what his eyes could do-what they could make us do-when he stared down from the pulpit and held us, one by one, in his gaze. His eyes are the same, but his face has altered so, drawn and haggard, each line etched deep. When he came here, just three years since, the whole village made a jest of his youthful looks and laughed at the idea of being preached at by such a pup. If they saw him now, they would not laugh, even if they could remember how to do so.

"You cannot read, Anna."

"To be sure, I can, Rector. Mrs. Mompellion taught me."

He winced and turned away as I mentioned her, and instantly I regretted it. He does not trouble to bind his hair these days, and from where I stood the long, dark fall of it hid his face, so that I could not read his expression. But his voice, when he spoke again, was composed enough. "Did she so? Did she so?" he muttered. "Well, then, perhaps one day I'll hear you and see what kind of a job she made of it. But not today, thank you, Anna. Not today. That will be all."

A servant has no right to stay, once she's dismissed. But I did stay, plumping the pillow, placing a shawl. He won't let me lay a fire. He won't let me give him even that little bit of comfort. Finally, when I'd run out of things to pretend to do, I left him.

In the kitchen, I chose a couple of the spotted apples I'd culled from the buckets and walked out to the stables. The courtyard hadn't been swept in a sennight. It smelled of rotting straw and horse piss. I had to hitch up my skirt to keep it off the muck. Before I was halfway across, I could hear the thud of his horse's rump as he turned and strutted in his confinement, gouging clefts into the floor of the stall. There's no one strong or skilled enough now to handle him.

The stable boy, whose job it was to keep the courtyard raked, was asleep on the floor of the tack room. He jumped when he saw me, making a great show of searching for the snath that had slipped from his hand when he'd dozed off. The sight of the scythe blade still upon his workbench vexed me, for I'd asked him to mend it long since, and the timothy now was naught but blown seed head and no longer worth the cutting. I was set to scold him about this, and about the filth outside, but his poor face, so pinched and exhausted, made me swallow the words.

Dust motes sparkled in the sudden shaft of sunlight as I opened the stable door. The horse stopped his pawing, holding one hoof aloft and blinking in the unfamiliar glare. Then he reared up on his muscled haunches and punched the air, saying, as plainly as he could, "If you aren't him, get out of here." Although I don't know when a brush was last laid on him, his coat still gleamed like bronze where the light touched it. When Mr. Mompellion had arrived here on this horse, the common talk had been that such a fine stallion was no fit steed for a priest. And people liked not to hear the rector calling him Anteros, after one of the old Puritans told them it was the name of a pagan idol. When I made so bold as to ask Mr. Mompellion about it, he had only laughed and said that even Puritans should recall that pagans, too, are children of God and their stories part of His creation.

I stood with my back pressed against the stall, talking gently to the great horse. "Ah, I'm so sorry you're cramped up in here all day. I brought you a small something." Slowly, I reached into the pocket of my pinafore and held out an apple. He turned his massive head a little, showing me the white of one liquid eye. I kept prattling, softly, as I used to with the children when they were scared or hurt. "You like apples. I know you do. Go on, then, and have it." He pawed the ground again, but with less conviction. Slowly, his nostrils flaring as he studied the scent of the apple, and of me, he stretched his broad neck toward me. His mouth was soft as a glove, and warm, as it brushed my hand, taking the apple in a single bite. As I reached into my pocket for the second one, he tossed his head and the apple juice sprayed. He was up now, angrily boxing the air, and I knew I'd lost the moment. I dropped the other apple on the floor of the stall and slid out quickly, resting my back against the closed door, wiping a string of horse spittle from my face. The stable boy slid his eyes at me and went silently on with his mending.

Well, I thought, it's easier to bring a small comfort to that poor beast than it is to his master. When I came back into the house, I could hear the rector out of his chair, pacing. The rectory floors are old and thin, and I could follow his steps by the creak of the boards. Up and back he walked, up and back, up and back. If only I could get him downstairs, to do his pacing in the garden. But once, when I suggested it, he looked as if I'd proposed something as ambitious as a trek up the White Peak. When I went to fetch his plate, the apple slices were all there, untouched, turning brown. Tomorrow, I'll start to work with the cider press. He'll take a drink without noticing sometimes, even when I can't get him to eat anything. And it's no use letting a cellar full of fruit go bad. If there's one thing I can't stand anymore, it's the scent of a rotting apple.

* * *

At day's end, when I leave the rectory for home, I prefer to walk through the orchard on the hill rather than go by the road and risk meeting people. After all we've been through together, it's just not possible to pass with a polite, "Good night t'ye." And yet I haven't the strength for more. Sometimes, not often, the orchard can bring back better times to me. These memories of happiness are fleeting things, reflections in a stream, glimpsed all broken for a second and then swept away in the current of grief that is our life now. I can't say that I ever feel what it felt like then, when I was happy. But sometimes something will touch the place where that feeling was, a touch as slight and swift as the brush of a moth's wing in the dark.

In the orchard of a summer night, if I close my eyes, I can hear the small voices of children: whispers and laughter, running feet and rustling leaves. Come this time of year, it's Sam that I think of-strong Sam Frith grabbing me around the waist and lifting me into the low, curved branch of a gnarly, old tree. I was just fifteen. "Marry me," he said. And why wouldn't I? My father's croft had ever been a joyless place. My father loved a pot better than he loved his children, though he kept on getting them, year passing year. To my stepmother, Aphra, I was always a pair of hands before I was a person, someone to toil after her babies. Yet it was she who spoke up for me, and it was her words that swayed my father to give his assent. In his eyes I was but a child still, too young to be handfasted. "Open your eyes, husband, and look at her," said Aphra. "You're the only man in the village who doesn't. Better she be wedded early to Frith than bedded untimely by some youth with a prick more upright than his morals."

Sam Frith was a miner with his own good lead seam to work. He had a fine small cottage and no children from a first wife who'd died. It did not take him long to give me children. Two sons in three years. Three good years. I should say, for there are many now too young to remember it, that it was not a time when we were raised up thinking to be happy. The Puritans, who are few amongst us now, and sorely pressed, had the running of this village then. It was their sermons we grew up listening to in a church bare of adornment, their notions of what was heathenish that hushed the Sabbath and quieted the church bells, that took the ale from the tavern and the lace from the dresses, the ribands from the Maypole and the laughter out of the public lanes. So the happiness I got from my sons, and from the life that Sam provided, burst on me as sudden as the first spring thaw. When it all turned to hardship and bleakness again, I was not surprised. I went calmly to the door that terrible night with the torches smoking and the voices yelling and the men with their faces all black so that they looked headless in the dark. The orchard can bring back that night, too, if I let my mind linger there. I stood in the doorway with the baby in my arms, watching the torches bobbing and weaving crazy lines of light through the trees. "Walk slow," I whispered. "Walk slow, because it won't be true until I hear the words." And they did walk slow, trudging up that little hill as if it were a mountain. But slow as they came, in the end they arrived, jostling and shuffling. They pushed the biggest one, Sam's friend, out in front. There was a mush of rotten apple on his boot. Funny thing to notice, but I suppose I was looking down so that I wouldn't have to look into his face.

They were four days digging out Sam's body. They took it straight to the sexton's instead of bringing it home to me. They tried to keep me from it, but I wouldn't be kept. I would do that last thing for him. She knew. "Tell them to let her go to him," Elinor Mompellion said to the rector in that gentle voice of hers. Once she spoke, it was over. She so rarely asked anything of him. And once Michael Mompellion nodded, they parted, those big men, moving aside and letting me through.

To be sure, there wasn't much there that was him. But what there was, I tended. That was two years ago. Since then, I've tended so many bodies, people I loved and people I barely knew. But Sam's was the first. I bathed him with the soap he liked, because he said it smelled of the children. Poor slow Sam. He never quite realized that it was the children who smelled of the soap. I washed them in it every night before he came home. I made it with heather blooms, a much gentler soap than the one I made for him. His soap was almost all grit and lye. It had to be, to scrape that paste of sweat and soil from his skin. He would bury his poor tired face in the babies' hair and breathe the fresh scent of them. It was the closest he got to the airy hillsides. Down in the mine at daybreak, out again after sundown. A life in the dark. And a death there, too.

And now it is Elinor Mompellion's Michael who sits all day in the dark, with the shutters closed. And I try to serve him, although sometimes I feel that I'm tending just another in that long procession of dead. But I do it. I do it for her. I tell myself I do it for her. Why else would I do it, after all?

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R_Emrys, January 2, 2013 (view all comments by R_Emrys)
I put this off for a long time because the subject sounded so depressing. But the book is not depressing--Brooks has an amazing way with words, and characters, that is a delight even when the topic is grim. And she never loses sight of the little touches of humanity.
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Terence Garth, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Terence Garth)
Geraldine Brooks introduces a remarkable female protagonist in the character of Anna Frith, who works as a housemaid in an English village in 1665. When her husband is killed in a coal mining accident, Anna's life becomes entwined with the lives of the village minister and his wife. After plague reaches the village, the visionary minister leads the villagers to a decision to quarantine the town to keep the sickness from spreading. During the "year of wonders," the village becomes a microcosm of the human condition, as Anna witnesses one death after another and sees where fear and temptation can drive people. Anna and all the characters are changed in different ways by the quarantine.

Basing the story on a true occurrence, the author provides the reader with just enough historical trappings to deliver the time and place. I found The Year of Wonders to be an amazing journey and an inspiring read.
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(1 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
nicole d, August 31, 2012 (view all comments by nicole d)
An interesting and enjoyable book. Being about the plague, you can guess going in that there are going to be a lot of deaths, but Brooks did a good job of demonstrating how the deaths affect the living. Some become religious zealots, some lose their religion, some turn to witchcraft, some become reclusive, some become more caring, etc. Given the fairly straightforward plot, the ending was surprising and had an interesting twist.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780142001431
Author:
Brooks, Geraldine
Publisher:
Penguin Books
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Historical
Subject:
Great britain
Subject:
History
Subject:
Historical - General
Subject:
Plague
Subject:
Historical fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st paperback ed.
Edition Description:
Paperback / softback
Series Volume:
94-15
Publication Date:
April 30, 2002
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
from 12
Language:
English
Pages:
352
Dimensions:
7.74x5.02x.61 in. .50 lbs.
Age Level:
from 18

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Year of Wonders Used Trade Paper
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$10.50 In Stock
Product details 352 pages PENGUIN PUTNAM TRADE - English 9780142001431 Reviews:
"Review A Day" by , "The novel is filled with moments of compassion and sadness, as when Anna comes to terms with the lingering presence of the dead....Yet with the same steady hand Brooks uses to paint the beauty of the English countryside, she details the gruesome minutiae of the disease. No sooner do her descriptions of a mother's love for her child or a housewife's simple, daily chores lull and mesmerize, than Brooks pans the landscape, bestowing the same respectful observation on a putrid plague boil." (read the entire Salon review)
"Review" by , "Year of Wonders is a staggering fictional debut that matches journalistic accumulation of detail to natural narrative flair."
"Review" by , "With an intensely observant eye, a rigorous regard for period detail, and assured, elegant prose, Brooks recreates a year in the life of a remote British village decimated by the bubonic plague....Brooks keeps readers glued through starkly dramatic episodes and a haunting story of flawed, despairing human beings. This poignant and powerful account carries the pulsing beat of a sensitive imagination and the challenge of moral complexity."
"Review" by , "Though the historical detail is absorbing, it is the story of Anna — her courage, her struggle to understand God's will — that is Brooks's most wondrous touch. A."
"Review" by , "The novel glitters....A deep imaginative engagement with how people are changed by catastrophe."
"Review" by , "[A] vivid drama... Brooks has clearly done her homework... she gives us what we want from historical fiction: a glimpse into the strangeness of history that simultaneously enables us to see a reflection of ourselves."
"Review" by , "Picturesque... evocative... impressively rendered... Brooks's portrait is as faithful as we can hope for."
"Review" by , "Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders is a wonder indeed: a marriage of language and story unlike anything I have ever read. The novel gives the reader a remarkable glimpse into a 17th century horror, but does so with both compassion and exuberance. Read it for the inventiveness of the language alone — a genuine treat."
"Review" by , "Beautiful... deeply moving."
"Review" by , "A superb work of historical fiction."
"Review" by , "I honestly cannot recall the last time I read a novel as riveting, haunting, and authentically rendered as Year of Wonders. This book is astonishing, a small wonder itself."
"Synopsis" by , In 1666, a young woman comes of age during an extraordinary year of love and death. Inspired by the true story of Eyam, a "plague village" in the rugged hill country of England, "Year of Wonders" is a richly detailed evocation of a singular moment in history, written by the author of "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women."
"Synopsis" by ,
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In 1666, a young woman comes of age during an extraordinary year of love and death.

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