Book review: ‘The Wonder’ depicts controversy of miracle girl in 17th century Ireland

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Donoghue’s novel “The Wonder” is a work of fiction, but it was inspired by reports of similar “fasts.” In the middle 1800s in Ireland, it was reported that an 11-year-old girl had eaten nothing for four months. Anna O’Donnell had become a religious symbol of sorts, with tourists lining up to see and, if possible, touch or be touched by the child who was obviously blessed.

The real-world skeptics were not so sure. Thus, a test was set in motion. A local committee, with the hope of proving the miracle, took up the challenge. For two weeks, the child would be watched night and day to see if any food was being clandestinely eaten. To that end, a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse and an Irish nun would be given the task. To further complicate things, a reporter from a large Irish newspaper had undertaken exposing the supposed intrigue or at least telling the story.

What ensues is a story of 17th century Ireland, some of its people and, to a large extent, its religion. The Protestant nurse, believing that her real job is just to expose a hoax, is faced with a real girl who becomes a friend. She must make nursing decisions in an unfamiliar environment in terms of both culture and religion. To complicate things, the nun and the doctor seem to have completely different values from hers and to some extent from each other. In addition, the committee made it clear that they really didn’t want to deal with this until the full two-week trial had run its course. Even if the miracle girl now seems to be starving to death. And then there are the parents.

It seems that a fair trial ought to be free of outside interference. But what about the tourists who are willing to make financial donations to the poor, and what about the very interested reporter? Nurse Lib Wright is faced with all of this and the task at hand. If she’s able to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, it will be a wonder, and not the one in the title.

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