Sometimes you find a book. Sometimes one finds you. My husband pressed
me to read The Doomsday Book after he had listened to the audio version.
The novel’s premise is seductive for anyone interested in history: It is
Christmas season, 2054, Oxford University. Time travel is possible, and
students who concentrated on one era in history can travel to that time and
place to see what it was really like. At least, the Modern History Department
has sent graduate students successfully to recent centuries.

Some periods are off limits. They will never be traveled, even if confidence
in the technology improves. They are too dangerous, graded 10. The list
includes the whole of the Middle Ages.

Ah, but the Chairman of the History Department is missing, off fishing
somewhere in Scotland. Mr. Gilchrist of Medieval History is acting Chair,
and he is set on using his temporary authority to send his best student,
Kivrin Engel, to Christmas 1320 in Oxford. Despite the fact the century was
banned from time travel, she had studied the period with passion, learning
Middle English and Church Latin, how to ride a horse, sew, milk a cow,
tend a wound, lay out a body for burial. She had worn down Mr. Dunworthy,
a respected professor in Modern History, until he taught her what she
needed to know about time travel. To his dismay, he cannot stop her dream
and Mr. Gilchrist’s moment of triumph. She disappears into the past … and
something goes wrong.

Kivrin is sick when she arrives. As she shivers with fever in a borrowed
bedroom, she watches the two women who tend her. The historian is an
observer, taking in information about the elderly woman with chapped,
wrinkled hands and raspy voice and the young woman whose keys jingle at
her belt and whose hands are always gentle. As days pass, Kivrin feels as if
she is living inside one of her holographic history books, but no one talks
the way she was taught they would, the clothes and furnishings are much
rougher than she expected for a manor house, and the smells of excrement
and sweat in a smoky room are nauseating, even with a terribly stuffed nose

A little girl begins to sneak in when the women aren’t looking and gazes
openly at Kivrin. One morning, the little girl’s words make sense, and
Kivrin no longer sees characters, she meets people. Agnes is five or six years
old, the youngest child and highly aware there are too few adults in the
house to make all the holiday preparations and supervise her. She is
delighted with her captive visitor and smuggles her black puppy and gilded
toy cart into the room for Kivrin to see.

The holidays come, and illness arrives in the form of a sick priest who also
is brought to the manor house. Unlike Kivrin, he doesn’t have the flu.
As Kivrin (who was inoculated before her trip against virtually everything
known to exist during that general period) helps to undress him, she sees a
distended, discolored lymph node in his armpit, a bubo. And so she learns
she isn’t in 1320, a relatively benign year, but 1348 --- and the Black Death
has just come to England, to her village and her friends.

At the end of things, it seems you cannot change history, no matter how
much you know, how hard you try, how deeply you love. The Black Death
wiped out half of Europe over less than two years’ time. Whole villages
were lost, not a single survivor. Even the animals died, alone and untended.
 
As Kivrin sits with the last surviving villager, the priest she has come
quietly to respect and love, he surprises her with his dying thoughts.
They are not bitter, nor despairing, but full of thankfulness. He talks
quietly, saying “All men must die, and none, not even Christ, can save
them… Yet have you saved me from fear and unbelief.”

And she had. As each person in the village got sick, as the manor steward
buried one child after another and then their parents, he ran out of room in
the churchyard. They had to start burying people on the green. As the dead
came to outnumber the living, Kivrin was still firm. It is not the end of the
world. It is not God’s judgment on us. It is not Doomsday. It is a disease.
There was fear, but no panic. There were odd responses to being asked to
wear masks, boil instruments, and do other things she recommended, but
people did it because their priest and the family of the manor believed in
her goodness. Although they died as surely as their neighbors in nearby
villages did, some of the horror was removed from the dying. They still
believed there would be a tomorrow, even if they did not see it.

Perhaps this is the most we can do in life, in our own way, one day at a
time. When we cannot change the events, we can change how they are
experienced, how they are endured, sometimes, overcome.

I know this to be true not because it could happen but because it has
happened. Audiotapes found in the debris of the World Trade Center
proved some firemen made it to the floors of impact on September 11,
2001, began triaging the wounded, got together the first groups to send
down the stairs with evacuation instructions. They didn’t save any lives,
even their own, but they changed everything. People who were caught in
debris and fire were no longer isolated in pain and terror. The firemen had
come. Help had come. They were not alone. They could regain hope, a
belief that they might survive, that they should keep trying. The firemen
could not alter the deaths, but they changed the dying.

I believe we are meant to do the same, to give up our sense of distance
from others, the observer’s emotional remove that keeps us safe. We are
called to revel in each other’s joys and flinch with their pain. We can
endure more than we think we can. We may be able to change more than
we think we can. We need to try. That is the lesson Kivrin learned. That is the lesson of September 11th. The lesson of Doomsday, a day of death, is how to live.