Year of Wonders


Geraldine Brooks

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Year of Wonders: Part 2: So Soon to be Dust Summary & Analysis

Maggie and Brand return bloody and bruised from Bakewell. While Brand was able to blend into the crowd, Maggie was recognized in the crowded market and townspeople, fearing she carried the “plague seeds,” pelted her with rotten apples. Brand returned to rescue her and carried her away in a handcart. Mompellion praises him for his heroism, while Anna curses the Bradfords for making their servants homeless and driving them to desperation. Jakob Merrill, a farmer, takes in Brand while Anna agrees Maggie in her own cottage.
Brand and Maggie’s return underscores how truly isolated Eyam is now. Besides the arranged delivery of food and money, they can’t rely on their neighbors for any moral support. This is a logistical problem: Eyam no longer has access to medical services or the justice system, both of which will pose problems later. It’s also a psychological quandary: without mores imposed on them from the outside, the norms that allow the community to live peacefully together are at risk of degrading.
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Needing a cart in which to transport Maggie to her cottage, Anna goes to the Miner’s Tavern and runs into Josiah, who can be found there drinking at all hours. Her father invites her for a beer and teases her for being a prude when she says no. Incensed, Anna quotes Ephesians, telling him to “let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth.” Joss is angry at being shown up in front of his friends, and says he is going to put Anna in a branks – a painful, helmet-like cage that restricted speech and was used to punish women who “scolded” men in public. Anna remembers seeing her father apply this punishment to her mother, who couldn’t speak for days afterward. In her fear, she urinates in her skirt and Joss lets her go. Anna returns home upset and shaking.
This is very disturbing incident. For one thing, it shows the kind of brutality that men inflict on wives and daughters and that society accepts (the other miners don’t protest Josiah’s actions). It’s important to note that Anna’s relationship with her father is based on violence and fear, as this dynamic will have drastic consequences later. It also shows the intense male hostility to female agency. Any action or speech that isn’t explicitly submissive is interpreted and punished as outright subversion.
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Anna is roused from fear and self-pity when she returns to the Merrill house to see Maggie. Maggie has suffered a stroke and it’s clear that she won’t survive long. Anna reflects on “the varied skills that reposed” in Maggie, from skinning a deer and cooking economically to making delicate pastries. She wonders why God allows people to become skilled and useful and then lets them die, while others like Joss, are greedy and intemperate and live long lives. That night, Maggie dies.
While others see Maggie as a simple and slightly ridiculous cook, Anna truly appreciates her abilites, describing her undervalued trade as sophisticated and artistic. To Anna, people like Maggie are worth much more than the Bradfords, who despite their class status are unintelligent and unskilled. These observations lead Anna to question not only class paradigms but religious orthodoxy. If she no longer takes the Bradfords’ privileged status for granted, it’s a short step to disputing the accepted fact that God has a plan for everything.
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