A Parcel Of Patterns – Jill Paton Walsh
“A parcel of patterns brought the plague to Eyam. A parcel sent up from London to George Vicars, a journeyman tailor, who was lodging with Mrs. Cooper in a cottage by the west end of the churchyard.”
So begins Mall Percival's account of how her village of Eyam struggled against the plague. George Vicars dies on September 6, 1665, and by the end of October, twenty-five more townsfolk have been buried. As the deaths continue, the villagers, including Mall, begin to panic—helpless to fight off the disease. Uncertain as to how it is contracted and passed from one person to another, Mall forces herself to make a sacrifice that radically changes her life—she decides to stops seeing Thomas Torre, a man from another village, the man she hopes to marry. In June of 1666, at their minister's urging, the entire village makes a pact to protect those who live in the surrounding countryside by staying within the boundaries of Eyam.
Review: Are there book design classes? Can I send my copy of this book to a book design class so the students can autopsy it and learn what not to do? Seriously, this is one of the worst-designed books I’ve ever read. The book is about the size of my hand. The covers and binding are stiff. There are basically no margins, so the writing runs all the way across the page and sometimes gets covered by the binding. If you have carpal tunnel like me, it’s an awkward book to hold. I kept dropping it. Constantly losing my page does not make me a happy reader.
Let’s put the design disasters aside and talk about the plot. This novel is a fictionalization of a real-life event that occurred in Eyam, England during the 1660s. After the villagers start dying from plague, they decide to quarantine themselves to keep the sickness from spreading to other villages.
This story is narrated by Mall, a teenage shepherdess from Eyam. She’s in love with Thomas, a shepherd from a nearby village. They’re making plans to get married, but their future is derailed when the people of Eyam decide to quarantine the village. Mall and Thomas are no longer allowed to see each other. Thomas has no way of knowing if Mall is alive. Mall is forced to stay in town and take care of her friends and family as they die.
Earlier this year, I read Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, which is also about Eyam and the plague. I felt “meh” about that book. Unfortunately, I felt “meh” about A Parcel of Patterns as well.
The author does a nice job of capturing the monotonous horror of watching people die. Mall is completely powerless. She can’t leave Eyam, and she can’t stop the plague. The people in the village believe that God is punishing them, but they don’t know why. The sickness pushes people to their mental limits. It’s a devastating situation.
“And may God better understand and love us, than we, in our weakness, can do him.” – A Parcel of Patterns
Other reviewers have mentioned the writing style, so I probably should, too. This book is written in the way that people spoke in 1600s England. If you’ve read British classics, you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s antiquated English. Getting used to the writing style takes some time, but it didn’t bother me. The writing isn’t hard to understand. It’s just different.
I was bothered by the length of the book. There are a lot of characters and only 136 pages. Most of the novel reads like a list to me. This person dies, and then this person dies, and then this person dies. Since the book is so short, the reader doesn’t get a chance to know the characters before they die. The characters appear briefly, and then they’re dead.
Thomas also got on my nerves. After Eyam quarantines itself, he keeps trying to see Mall. Whenever he notices her in the distance, he runs toward her, and she runs away. She asks him to stay away from Eyam, but he doesn’t listen. Dude, just stay in your own village! What if he had carried the plague home with him? Then the quarantine would’ve been pointless. One dude would’ve killed everyone because he refused to listen to his girlfriend. Not cool.
So, I didn’t love this novel. I’m still searching for a really good historical plague book.