August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

A Novel of the Plague
By Geraldine Brooks

Imagine Jodie Foster as a semiliterate young widow ministering to her dying neighbors in a plagueridden village in 17th-century England and you’ve got Anna Frith, the quiet and dignified heroine of this transporting first novel.

A mining accident kills Anna’s husband and the plague takes her two sons. There will be many more burials but little time for grieving once the rector’s wife recruits Anna, teaching her to read and to help prepare herbal remedies to treat the ever-increasing number of victims. A loving and most unexpected friendship develops, along with enough plot twists to satisfy the most demanding mystery fans. Characters beset by a world of horrors develop their own terrifying—yet entirely plausible—traits. Some turn to witchcraft, others to witch-hunting.

A former war correspondent, Brooks proves a gifted storyteller as she subtly reveals how ignorance, hatred and mistrust can be as deadly as any virus. Based in part on the true story of Eyam, a rural Derbyshire village whose rector persuaded residents to voluntarily quarantine themselves during the plague, Year of Wonders is itself a wonder. (Viking, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Don’t avoid it

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