The Black Death: A Personal History. By John Hatcher. Da Capo. $27.50.
Blood Roses. By Francesca Lia Block. HarperTeen. $15.99.
Evernight. By Claudia Gray. HarperTeen. $16.99.
So sweeping was the devastation of the Black Death, which killed more than one-third of the population of Europe, and so remote is its time in the mid-14th century, that it has never been easy for lay readers to comprehend just how significant its impact was on the people affected by it. Now John Hatcher, chairman of the history faculty at the University of Cambridge, has come up with a remarkably effective way to connect the 21st century with the 14th: through a semi-novel called The Black Death: A Personal History. Although carefully researched and filled with the insight of a skilled historian, the book relies for its effect on a series of entirely made-up scenes in which the common people in the parish of Walsham anticipate, cope with and survive (or do not survive) the coming of the plague. Recent studies have affirmed the unsurprising conclusion that the Black Death did not strike everyone with equal force – that it was most devastating to those already in poor health, which means the peasantry. These are the very people of whom virtually no records remain – they were illiterate and far too preoccupied with daily life, even in non-crisis times, to be concerned with posterity (except, in a limited way, through their children). Yet these are the people at the heart of Hatcher’s book – and if their names, dialogue and feelings are wholly invented by the author, they are at least created by someone whose familiarity with the time gives all the events the ring of truth. So we have villagers concerned, before the disease strikes, about “the cowardly and heartless actions of foreigners who had left the sick to die alone and the dead to be buried without funeral rites and ceremonies… Such behavior was un-Christian, unforgivable, and a risk to the eternal peace of the soul” – until the villagers find themselves practicing it themselves when their time of trial comes. We have insights into the petty politics of minor feudal officials, such as the reeve out for his own good despite the pestilence; and we learn about attempts to keep life more or less normal – such as through periodic court hearings where women are (for example) fined for bearing illegitimate children. Hatcher provides a fully realized societal portrait, showing where Walsham’s stability came from and how it was shattered by the Black Death – whose most lasting effect was the destabilization of the entire feudal system, since laborers became more valuable after so many of them died. The Black Death: A Personal History is a most unusual work of scholarship in the trappings of a novel – and it makes readers feel surprisingly close to the millions of unknown people who perished from the dread disease so many centuries ago.
Blood Roses, too, is not exactly a novel, being a series of short tales of transformations as strange and troubling as any in the real world. Death haunts here as well, at least from time to time, as in “My Haunted House,” about a strange dollhouse that Fleurette’s parents refuse to throw away, “So the dollhouse was moved to the garage where Death continued to live because Death must live somewhere, mustn’t she?” Death and questions of identity are often intermingled, for example in “My Boyfriend Is an Alien,” whose narrator says, “I didn’t tell him that I’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia or that I tried to kill myself with pills. That part of the reason I change my hair so often is so that I can forget who I really am.” And then there is the very disquieting “My Mother the Vampire,” in which Sasha’s mom, Bets, who “was rather shockingly beautiful,” matter-of-factly takes her daughter’s blood for her own purposes: “Bets hummed a little tune as she tied the tourniquet around Sasha’s slender arm. …Afterward, Bets gave Sasha a Hello Kitty, Barbie or Disney Princess Band-Aid and a lollipop.” These stories are deeper and more chilling for being so short and so matter-of-fact about the outré.
Claudia Gray’s first novel, Evernight, is a much more conventional vampire tale, but it is exciting and well told and deserves a (+++) rating. It raises the question of whether vampires or vampire hunters are the true outsiders – or whether both groups are – through a story set at Evernight Academy, a boarding school at which Bianca has been enrolled after her parents take jobs there. There are the usual uprooting, searching-for-yourself and star-crossed-lovers themes here (Bianca – whose name, rather too obviously, means “white” – finds herself strongly drawn to Lucas, who seems to fit in as poorly at Evernight as does Bianca herself). Gray – pen name of Amy Vincent, who has previously worked as a lawyer and journalist – closely observes her characters and their settings, and manages some slightly offbeat takes on vampire lore (“the forgetting is part of the bite”). It turns out that vampires in Gray’s world are driven by the need not only for blood but also for understanding, and Evernight Academy exists to give it to them. And the question of whether Bianca and Lucas are two of a kind or foreordained mortal enemies gives the book a piquant Romeo-and-Juliet flavor. There is little new here, but the well-worn themes of vampires and their enemies are nicely knitted together.