In Geraldine Brook's Year of Wonders, Anna and Elinor at first seem like they would make unlikely friends.
The book begins in the present; the reader learns of Anna's experiences over the last year. She describes who she was before coming to work for the Mompellions, and facing the plague years. Then she speaks to how she has changed. Working at the rectory has changed how she sees herself.
The rector sends Anna downstairs to send Elizabeth Bradford away.
It was as if there were two of me, walking down those stairs. One of them was the timid girl who had worked for the Bradfords in a state of dread, fearing their hard looks and harsh words. The other was Anna Frith, a woman who had faced more terrors than many warriors...As I entered the parlor and faced [Elizabeth Bradford's] thunderous countenance, I knew I had nothing to fear.
The story then flashes back: Anna is the uneducated housekeeper in Elinor Mompellion's home in Eyam, a small country town in England. Elinor explains things to the bright Anna as to how to improve herself and her life.
"...Anna," [Mrs. Mompellion] said as she saw me..."Did you know that the tea made of this unassuming little flower serves to cool a fever? As a mother you'd do well to add some herb lore to your store of knowledge, for you never can be sure when your children's well-being might depend on it." [She] never let a minute pass without trying to better me, and for the most part I was a willing pupil.
Anna loves learning, and soon Elinor is sharing all kinds of knowledge with her. Anna even learns to read.
The plague arrives and the town is devastated by the spread of the disease. Families are decimated; land is left untilled, or crops remain unharvested. Fear permeates the society. There is the loss of life, but paradoxically, there are wonders to be discovered as well.
Anna [and] Elinor...try to rally their neighbors to deal with the tragedy sensibly, praying to God but taking practical precautions such as burning infected clothing and supplies.
Neither is afflicted by the disease, but Anna, a widow, loses a man she might well have married, and soon her two sons follow. When Anna's younger son dies, Elinor is there to comfort her when her stepmother blames Anna because of cruel, superstitious beliefs.
With all about them crumbling, the two women do their best to help others. When the Gowdie women (the healers) are murdered, Anna and Elinor do what they can to help the townspeople with herbal remedies and midwifery. In joining together to help others, the women grow very close—Anna and Elinor survive by uplifting one another.
If Anna and Elinor had not had each other, certainly the town would have suffered more greatly than it did, but the women might well have given in to despair—Anna because of the loss of her boys, and Elinor because of her guilt and loneliness. To her pain, she is never able to have a baby...
...the whole parish...benefitted from her barrenness, as she mothered the children who weren't mothered enough in their own crowded crofts...
Learning and working together with common purpose to treat the sick, or even to save Merry Wickford's family mine, helps the women to forget their own suffering as they minister to others in need. These things help them to survive emotionally and spiritually. And perhaps the steps they take to protect the townspeople ultimately keep them safe from the plague as well.
Most of all, Anna and Elinor's friendship saves them.