“My Tom died as babies do, gently and without complaint. Because they have been such a little time with us, they seem to hold to life but weakly. I used to wonder if it was so because the memory of Heaven still lived within them, so that in leaving here they do not fear death as we do, who no longer know with certainty where it is our spirits go. This, I thought, must be the kindness that God does for them and for us, since He gives so many infants such a little while to bide with us.”
1666 was not a good year for England with bubonic plague killing 100,000 people followed by The Great Fire of London which destroyed 80% of London or about 13,000 homes. It is hard for us to conceive of a disease that can show up one day and within a few short months kill 75% of the people we know. To survive is fortuitous, but to actually acquire the disease and survive is nothing short of miraculous. The first signs were bulges at the groin called buboes. Can you imagine the bone chilling fear that would course through your body at the first appearance of such bulges?
George Viccars, a tailor, made a very innocuous decision to order a bolt of cloth from London. He used the cloth to make fashionable dresses for the ladies of Eyam little did he know the cloth was infested with plague carrying fleas. The plague kills Viccars first and spreads quickly from family to family taking the youngest and fittest in greatest numbers. William Mompellion, the minister of the shire, makes the heroic decision to quarantine the town and contain the contagion. Through the eyes of Anna Frith we are exposed to the devastating effects of fear and loss on the small community. Death brings opportunity to some and sends others into object poverty. Anna, though besot by her own demons, does the best she can to not only survive her personal losses, but also make the fateful decision to devout her life providing help and succor to those who need it most.
The midwives, medicine women, who command a deep knowledge of herbs and roots that would provide the most help during an outbreak of a deadly disease are the first to be treated with distrust. Their knowledge is looked on as magical well beyond the understanding of an under educated population. You would have thought these women had green skin and made grand statements like "I'll get you my pretty."
, but they were just women interested in understanding the world around them and making the best use of what nature provided. "And so, as generally happens, those who have most give least, and those with less somehow make shrift to share."
The rich flee Eyam and the rest stay, intent on riding out the worst of the contagion. They had no conception of just how horrible things were going to get.
This is based on a true story. The book shows people at their very best and their very worst. It made me consider what I would do. Could I be as brave as Anna? Could I support the leadership of a Minister intent on keeping me and my family in harms way? Could I help those already infected? There are many things to admire in this tale. The ending though is odd. I notice that other reviewers mentioned the ending and I agree it was unexpected, but maybe we are all just underestimating the courage and determination of one woman.
Two other plague novels that I really liked are [b:Company Of Liars|2761171|Company Of Liars|Karen Maitland|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327931234s/2761171.jpg|2786880] by Karen Maitland and [b:The Pesthouse|92555|The Pesthouse|Jim Crace|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1171249173s/92555.jpg|1792411] by Jim Crace. I have no reviews for them; unfortunately, because I read them before finding the wonderful community of goodreads. Company of Liars is told in a similar vein to Chaucer's [b:The Canterbury Tales|2696|The Canterbury Tales|Geoffrey Chaucer|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1261208589s/2696.jpg|986234] and Pesthouse is a postapocalyptic America regressed to Medieval conditions.