Sally Nicholls’s third young adult historical novel, All Fall Down
(2012), is set during the middle of the fourteenth century in England, as the Black Death plague ravages Europe. Through the point of view
of a teenager living during this time, the novel delves into life in the feudal system, what it might have been like to cope with the scourge of a disease that wiped out almost half of the population, and the aftermath of this period of history. Written in the first person and in the present tense, the story doesn’t shy away from the grimness of corpses, loss, hunger, and misery – but it also describes the rebuilding aftermath that shaped the course of human history.
The novel is set during the deadliest disease outbreak in recorded history: the Black Death, which lasted from 1348-1350. After killing tens of millions of people in Asia, the contagion made its way to Europe, where it would eventually go on to wipe out half the inhabitants.
Fourteen-year-old Isabel looks back on the events of the year 1349. From this point on, Isabel tells her story in the present tense as though she is living through events.
Isabel lives in the small village of Ingleforn in a close and loving family: her father, Amabel, her beloved stepmother, Alice, nine-year-old brother, Ned, toddler sister, Margaret, and baby brother, Edmund. Not living with them are Isabel’s older brothers: Richard, who is married and lives at his own farm, and Geoffrey, Isabel’s favorite sibling, who has joined a monastery.
The family isn’t poor, but they also aren’t free: they are villeins, which are basically feudal serfs. In addition to working on their own farm for themselves, they are obligated to tend the fields belonging to their lord, Sir Edmund, who, in theory, reciprocates by protecting them in case of warfare. This arrangement means that the family legally belongs to the lord and has minimal rights.
Isabel’s life is highly circumscribed. She has never traveled outside her village, and she has known from birth that when she is of age, she will marry Robin, a neighbor’s son and Isabel’s best friend – even though she is actually more attracted to Will, a shy and handsome village boy. Isabel’s voice is the novel’s strength, according to readers: she sounds authentically teenaged, but still shaped by her time and her religion; practical, but often realistically cowardly; rebellious enough to ignore some of her parents’ wishes, but fiercely committed to her responsibilities to her family. She is happy with her life, wishing everything could always stay the same.
In June, rumors start spreading through the countryside about a terrible disease, with the Black Death following closely behind. No one knows what is causing the disease or how to defend against it, since the germ theory of disease is many centuries away from being formulated. Some believe the plague is divine justice, suffering deep psychological wounds when they assume their loved ones have been published for wrongdoing.
Isabel’s first thought is to worry about Geoffrey because his monastery is completely exposed. Against the explicit instructions of her father, she sneaks away to check on her brother’s safety – but in the process, she realizes that, even if he is in danger, there is nothing she can do to help him.
As the village sinks into the horror of the plague, people around Isabel start dying unpredictably. Relying on the resoluteness and resourcefulness she was forced to develop after losing her mother many years earlier, Isabel doesn’t wallow in sadness despite what she is experiencing. She uses her knowledge of how to cope with food shortages to care for her younger siblings; when Alice and Amabel die, she steps into the adult role in the family, assuming the limited power that was previously unavailable to her.
As the novel makes clear, the plague’s aftermath has a strange upside. Because so many people have died, women now have an opportunity to fill positions formerly only taken by men. Because many lords have been wiped out, their villeins are free from feudal servitude and can go elsewhere to seek a better life for themselves and their families.
The deaths are brutal, unexpected, and frequent. Besides her father and stepmother, Isabel also loses Robin, who dies at a moment when the family seems safe. Grieving by his makeshift grave, Isabel contemplates the loss of a future married to Robin, comparing herself to the millions of people grieving those they love in the same way as she is.
Isabel encounters Thomas, a merchant passing through the town on his way to York, and agrees to accompany him there along with her surviving siblings in order to get away from the village and possibly seek safety in the city. While in York, Isabel experiences what life is like for a richer woman when Thomas offers her his dead daughter’s bedroom and clothes – most of which she can’t put on because they are designed to be adjusted by a servant and their fastenings can’t be reached by the wearer. However, the visit turns ugly when Ned makes a grave mistake, exposing Thomas to the town’s judgment, which ends up getting Thomas hanged. Before his execution, Thomas gives Isabel some of his valuables because she reminds him of his daughter.
On her return to the village, as the plague is winding its course, Isabel enters a newly shifted landscape where power relationships have to be negotiated from scratch. Now that Sir Edmund is dead, Isabel’s brother Richard is no longer beholden to him, and can, instead, build up his own farm into a thriving and, hopefully, more prosperous way of life. To help, Isabel gives him Thomas’s gifts to her and goes to live on the farm with his family.