Geraldine Brooks has a new book due out soon (Viking Adult, May 3, 2011), which is timely for me because between enjoying Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague a ridiculous amount last year and the upcoming discussion of one of her older books, March on the What’s Old Is New Podcast, she is an author who had been on the brain lately. I have read three of her novels (including People of the Book) and each one has been thought-provoking and informative history while at the same time satisfying capable of transporting me into an entirely different space in time. Her novels are a prime example of what I love in books, smart writing that crosses genre, does what it wants and tells a good story.
Brooks’s novels are particularly well-researched, and her ability to infuse words with the richness of a different life has thrilled me in her books, even when I haven’t liked the characters or their circumstances. Her new novel is no exception to the others in approaching little know episodes from the past and bringing them to life.
About Caleb’s Crossing:
In 1665, a young man from Martha’s Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.
The narrator of Caleb’s Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island’s glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe’s shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb’s crossing of cultures.
Brooks answered several questions is a prepared Q&A. I was most interested in how she constructs character with the tiniest wisps of information, so I have included her comments on how she went about bringing the character of Caleb to life.
Caleb Cheeshahteamauk is an extraordinary figure in Native American history. How did you first discover him? What was involved in learning more about his life?
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah are proud custodians of their history, and it was in materials prepared by the Tribe that I first learned of its illustrious young scholar. To find out more about him I talked with tribal members, read translations of early documents in the Wopanaak language, then delved into the archives of Harvard and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially the correspondence between colonial leaders and benefactors in England who donated substantial funds for the education and conversion to Christianity of Indians in the 17th century. There are also writings by members of the Mayhew family, who were prominent missionaries and magistrates on the island, and John Cotton, Jr., who came here as a missionary and kept a detailed journal.
There is little documentation on Caleb’s actual life. What parts of his life did you imagine? Do you feel you know him better after writing this book, or is he still a mystery?
The facts about Caleb are sadly scant. We know he was the son of a minor sachem from the part of the Vineyard now known as West Chop, and that he left the island to attend prep school, successfully completed the rigorous course of study at Harvard and was living with Thomas Danforth, a noted jurist and colonial leader, when disease claimed his life. Everything else about him in my novel is imagined. The real young man—what he thought and felt—remains an enigma.
The book isn’t out for a couple of weeks, but Viking is allowing me to giveaway two galleys to US/Canadian readers of Linus’s Blanket. This will be a quickie giveaway. I’ll select two entrants by today at 5pm EST to receive advance copies of the book.
And the winners are!
There were 9 items in your list. Here they are in random order:
Congrats to Jill and Carrie!