The 1600s marked both the dawn of modern medicine and the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment all over Europe. In England, these years also brought the Restoration?revolution in every aspect of life against Oliver Cromwell′s Puritanism. English physicians charted the circulatory system, and the invention of the compound microscope and identification of bacteria were together about to begin unravelling the mystery of infectious disease. In 1662, King Charles established the Royal Society in order to promote the study of natural science. The world was changing rapidly, and its central focus shifted from God to man.
In 1665, in the remote English village of Eyam?small and closely knit community of lead miners and shepherds, cobblers and weavers?e bubonic plague ("The Black Death") has taken the town hostage both literally and figuratively. In a decision brought about by Michael Mompellion, the radical but much-admired town minister, the villagers of Eyam quarantine themselves in their "wide green prison" and vow to suffer the scourge alone. Believing that the plague is God′s judgment on their sinful world, most of the devoutly Christian villagers beg forgiveness and look for ways to assuage God′s ire?e most puritanical take up self-flagellation in an attempt to cleanse themselves. Almost completely cut off from the outside world (save for the ingenious "boundary stone"), and after panic has well and truly set in, the villagers turn on one another. In episodes that illustrate both the best of human nature (ministering to the sick) and the worst (a gravedigger profiteering from the dead), the townspeople grapple with their grief and fear. It is up to the story′s heroine?young, widowed housemaid named Anna Frith? raise the existential questions about the origins of the plague, and she therefore becomes the embodiment of the conflict at the centre of the novel: God versus Nature.
It came to me then that we, all of us, spent a very great deal of time pondering these questions that, in the end, we could not answer. If we balanced the time we spent contemplating God, and why He afflicted us, with more thought as to how the Plague spread and poisoned our blood, then we might come nearer to saving our lives. While these thoughts were vexing, they brought with them also a chink of light. For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about some grand celestial design that had to be completed before the disease would abate. We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village of sinners or a host of saints.
After suffering the death of her suitor and her two children, and despite her own spiritual beliefs and adoration for the rector and his wife, Anna boldly rejects the idea that the pestilence is a call for repentance. And in a time of such turmoil, she shrugs off the social and religious mores that would keep a weaker woman in her place. With the knowledge about herbal remedies that she has gleaned from the village herbalists Mem and Anys Gowdie, and the support and tutelage of her patroness, Elinor Mompellion, Anna emerges more powerful and self-confident than before. At the end of the novel, it is clear she has become stronger than even Michael Mompellion, the town′s figurehead and religious rock. Anna′s questions?d her role as a village healer?ll eventually lead her to her true calling. Caught up in the struggle between science and religion, Anna′s dilemma mirrors that of the world in her time. Ultimately she confesses: "I cannot say that I have faith anymore. Hope, perhaps. We have agreed that it will do for now."
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. All of the characters in this novel have their failings and as a result they are all fully human. Are you surprised by the secrets Elinor and Michael Mompellion each reveal to Anna about their marriage? How do they change your feelings about each character? Do they make either seem weaker in a way?
2. The Bradford family bears the brunt of Mompellion′s rage when they leave town to save themselves. However, weren′t they only doing what every other noble family did in those days: run because they had the means to run? Setting aside the events near the end of the novel (which make it clear that one would be hard-pressed to find a redeeming quality in any of them), can you really blame the Bradfords for running?
3. How much of Mompellion′s push for the quarantine had to do with the secrets he shared with Elinor? Did his own dark side and self-loathing push him to sacrifice the town or was he really acting out of everyone′s best interests?
4. Keeping in mind that this story takes place a good twenty-five years before the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, what is the role of the Gowdie women in the novel? What is it about these women that drives their neighbours to murderous rage? How does their nonconformity lead to their becoming scapegoats?
5. How would you explain Anna′s mental and spiritual unravelling? What are the pivotal experiences leading up to her breakdown and her eventual rebirth?
6. Discuss the feminist undertones of the story. How does each female character?na, Elinor, the Gowdies, and even Anna′s stepmother?hibit strengths that the male characters do not?
7. In a story where the outcome is already known from the very beginning?st of the villagers will die?scuss the ways in which the author manages to create suspense.
8. The author creates an incredible sense of time and place with richly textured language and thoughtful details? both the ordinary (everyday life in Eyam) and the extraordinary (the gruesome deaths of the villagers). Discuss some of the most vivid images and their importance to the story and to your own experience reading it.
9. Can we relate the story of this town′s extraordinary sacrifice to our own time? Is it unrealistic to expect a village facing a similar threat to make the same decision nowadays? What lessons might we learn from the villagers of Eyam?
About Geraldine Brooks