After the recent wildfires here in Sonoma County, our local radio station read the names and ages of all the victims, adding more as news came in. We’ve also, sadly, become accustomed to seeing the faces and hearing the names of victims of gun violence, long lists of people no longer alive. As hard as it is to hear these names and see these faces, it’s important for us to remember that real people with full lives, with families and friends who loved them, are behind these news headlines. I never want to lose sight of the fact that they were far more than simply terrible statistics.
When I first began writing The Smallest Thing, I was intrigued by the story of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre. I imagined a romantic tale of two young lovers separated by a quarantine. But, as I brought the story into present times, it morphed and evolved, as all stories do.
I imagined what it would be like to be held inside a quarantine zone, uncertain about your future. I couldn’t stop thinking about the real people of Eyam, who made the decision to impose the quarantine on themselves. What would it have been like in 1665 with no social media to gather information or cell phones to stay in touch with loved ones outside the zone? Would it be any better or worse in the 21st Century?
When I visited the real-life plague village of Eyam for research, I was struck again by the sacrifice made by the villagers, and the scope of the tragedy. In the village church, I saw the parish death register listing the names and dates of death of every victim.
Because that tragedy happened when record-keeping was imprecise, it’s unknown exactly how many people lost their lives in the village. Estimates suggest that 260 of the approximately 350 villagers perished during that 14 months. In some cases, entire families perished, one after the other. In the register, I saw, in writing, how the disease picked its way from person to very real person. Among the dead were six members of the Syddall family, including Emmott.
Seeing her name made me realize that I needed to tell more than just a tragic love story. It had to write about survival. It had to tell the story of an ordinary girl who finds herself in an extraordinary situation, who witnesses a catastrophic tragedy and is forever changed by the experience. More than anything I wanted to make Emmott real.
Even though the true story of Eyam and the plague happened more than 350 years ago, we can’t forget that it happened to real people, not so different from us.
If you would like to read the names of the Eyam plague victims, you can find them at the Eyam Museum website.