Reviewed by Jessica Waugh, Library Specialist
In this work of historical fiction, Brooks recreates a year in the life of a small British town stricken by bubonic plague in the 17th century. Inspired by actual events and a place known as "Plague Village," Brooks writes a harrowing account of isolation, death and social disintegration as seen through the eyes of young Anna Firth.
Anna narrates this tale with concision and controlled emotion. We learn that the plague was brought to the town by one itinerant tailor, whom she nursed without realizing the gravity of his illness. Her charity to this stranger reaps ill rewards as she describes the subsequent infection and death of her husband, children and neighbors. When the village minister announces that this plague is God's judgment and recommends the town shut itself off from the outside world, the citizens comply. With mounting deaths, however, superstition and fear begin to overwhelm the largely uneducated population. Violence in the form of witch hunting begins. Anna, the minister, and his wife attempt to calm the populace and provide succor to sickened villagers using the simple herbs of the time. When the dead outnumber the living, Anna laments that burial rites become all but impossible. She wonders if anyone will survive the scourge.
Brooks's research about the time period and the mechanics of the bubonic plague are remarkable. The result is a gritty, fascinating story with particular relevance today given recent concerns about the rise of drug-resistant disease and the inevitability of a pandemic. Although set in a time considered medically primitive, this story offers insight into the moral dilemmas of a society overwhelmed by sweeping contagion.