Saturday, January 7, 2012

Plague, Pandemic and Contagion (In Literature, Games, and Movies)

When I was helping my son with a sixth grade project on the Black Death years ago (he made "Black Death:  A Musical Documentary"), I saw a documentary on PBS that profiled a village in Derbyshire, England called Eyam.  Bubonic plague broke out in this village in 1665, and in the next year, many of the village residents fell victim to the illness.  Scientists tested the DNA of descendants of those who survived the plague in Eyam, and found a genetic mutation.  A similar mutation exists in people who have HIV but don't develop AIDS.  Since that documentary was made, scientists have questioned whether or not the genetic mutation was linked with plague survival or that of smallpox, but the documentary made an impression on me all the same.

Plague cottages in Eyam, England

In the novel "A Year of Wonders," author Geraldine Brooks writes a fictional account of the plague village, Eyam, from the autumn of 1665 to August 1666 when the plague ended.  Brooks tells the story of the village from the  perspective of a maid, Anna, who works for the local pastor.  Anna, a young widow with two small children, reacts with compassion and strength as the plague sweeps through her village.

Church in Eyam, England

There really was a pastor in Eyam who had a maid, and he really did encourage the villagers to quarantine themselves, thus preventing the plague from spreading throughout Derbyshire.  Brooks notes it is the only village she found record of that participated in a voluntary quarantine.  An earl provided food and medical supplies to the villagers, and money and goods were exchanged by leaving them at boundary stones on the outskirts of the village.  Through the eyes of the fictional Anna, Brooks takes the reader on an incredible journey through a horrifying time.  The book allows the thoughtful reader to consider how they would react in such a dire situation.  Would you support a quarantine on your village, or would you take your family and flee?  Would you be kind to your impoverished, ill neighbors, or would you take advantage of them?  Would living through such a trial alter your religious faith?  Would you hold fast to your faith, or would you look for other rituals to save you?  This well-written, thought provoking novel gave me a more complete picture of what it was like to live during the plague years in England.

Many of the locations in the novel are still around today.  To see sites of Eyam, click here.

If you'd rather experience a more modern version of an outbreak from the safety of an electronic screen, the recent Matt Damon movie, Contagion, is out on DVD.

Matt Damon in a scene from the movie, "Contagion"

This ensemble-cast movie doesn't let you get too attached to the characters, but Damon does a good job in the role of a husband and father whose wife is the first to fall ill with an unidentified disease.  The movie is well-paced and builds tension effectively as the disease spreads and people begin to panic.  Be grateful if you get to see this one at home.  Watching this in a theater made me cringe every time someone coughed!  You definitely want to wash your hands when you get out of this movie.  The cast of characters works frantically to prevent the spread of the contagion, and also to identify the cause and find a cure.  It is an interesting medical drama, and is a good evening of entertainment.

Maybe a board game is more your style.  "Do you have what it takes to save humanity?" is the question on the box of the board game, Pandemic, distributed by Z-Man games.  Try your hand at containing a disease outbreak yourself by taking on the role of a scientist, medic, or researcher in this fun game.  You work with other players to contain the disease as it spreads throughout the world.  Travel to different countries to treat, and hopefully cure, the disease. It is a race against the cards to see if your medical team will succeed before the pandemic takes over.  This game is surprisingly tense as the outbreaks expand and intensify.  Because it is a group game, you either all win, or all lose.  Made for up to 4 players, Pandemic is challenging and a great way to spend time with family or friends.

I enjoyed the book, movie, and game, and hope you do too!

1 comment:

  1. The game is less creepy crawly than the movie since there seems to be no real risk of catching anything (unless one of your fellow players is coughing...) Nice job tying all these together, I think I'll go wash my hands now... :)