Year of Wonders: a novel of the plague, by Geraldine Brooks. Viking, 2001.

Anna, an 18-year old widow with two small children, unwittingly introduces the bubonic plague into her village when she takes in a lodger from London in 1665. The rest of the story is predictable, save for one thing: it's based on events that happened in the real English village of Eyam, which imposed a voluntary quarantine upon itself in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease to other towns. At the end of the year, by the time the spread of the disease had stopped, two thirds of the villagers had died.

Brooks's story includes just about every element that could possibly be squeezed into the village boundaries: fear, blasphemy, women's education, herbalism, witchcraft, sex, opportunistism, flagellation, religious tolerance and intolerance - and squeezed them all into a single year. The language and descriptions are powerful and evocative, though I thought the ending was a bit weak - as if she had just got too tired and wanted to be done with it.

What I loved about the book was the use of colorful and contemporary words, that placed the story squat in the middle of its culture and time: handfasted, boose, beastings pie, overweening, oatcake and brawn, unruly tup. Mostly, an approximate inference is possible, but I ended up looking up many words in the OED.