Friday, June 03, 2011

In Conversation with Geraldine Brooks

Last night a friend and I attended an event run by Readers Feast bookshop which featured author Geraldine Brooks In Conversation.  Whilst there were a few younger readers there, it was an interesting contrast to other events I have been too recently as the crowd was much more mature in terms of the demographic.

I have been a fan of Geraldine Brooks ever since I read Year of Wonders many years ago. I really enjoyed March, and thought People of the Book was okay, so I was very excited to hear that there was a new book on the way, and the subject sounded very interesting.

Here is the blurb:

A richly imagined new novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller, People of the Book.

Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. 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.

Like Brooks's beloved narrator Anna in Year of Wonders, Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha's Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart. Evocative and utterly absorbing, Caleb's Crossing further establishes Brooks's place as one of our most acclaimed novelists.

In the conversation, the author touched on the idea of the actual history of Caleb going to Harvard being the "slender scaffold" that she built her story around, and about how the story that she wrote around this scaffold becoming the structure of the novel. She also talked about how she needed a first person voice as her narrator who tells the reader Caleb's story rather than using his voice. One of the reasons for his was partially out of respect in that she could not necessarily understand what it would have been like for a young native American man who was fluent enough in Latin and Greek to be able to meet the rigorous requirements that had to be met in order to be accepted to Harvard.

It always gave her an opportunity to share a story about how young women would have to snatch whatever learning they could however they could due to the fact that it was generally believed that it was bad for women to have book learning. Brooks talked about how this part of the story was inspired by a young girl from Afghanistan who used to sit on the roof of her house to listen to the school next year after girls were banned from school. (You can hear more about this aspect of Bethia's character in this reading)

It was fascinating to hear the discussion about the Wamponaog people, in particular about how their language was lost and then was bought back to life and about how the tribe forms such an important part of life on Martha's Vineyard today. She also shared with us the story about how it was that she came to live on Martha's Vineyard, and how that journey actually started way back when she was a rabid Star Trek fan as a youth. It was also great to hear exactly how some of the names should be pronounced.

While I enjoyed the whole night, which was held in one of the historical churches in Melbourne*, the highlight for me was really when the audience got to ask questions, and one lady started her question with the statement "I have a problem with you and the ending of Year of Wonders" and proceeded to talk about how she loved the whole of the book until getting to the completely improbably ending. This is completely my experience with Year of Wonders - loved the whole book but then there was that ending! I suspect that Geraldine Brooks might have heard this a few times before, but she took the time to explain that the ending that she gave to that book was actually based on a true story. She then went on to talk about the journeys that some of the more adventurous ladies had taken in the 17th century. Whilst I suspect that she possibly needs to make this clearer in her afterword if that is ever going to be revised, hearing that the ending was something that is based in fact and not just something improbably that she made up may just have changed my perception of that ending!

Luckily we were relatively close to the front of the audience and so it wasn't a long wait to get my copy of Caleb's Crossing signed. Now I just need to find time to read it!

*I always feel like I should clarify when I mention something historical here. The church we were in last night was found in 1843, which was only 5 years after the colony of Melbourne was founded, so that's historical to us!


  1. Sounds like a great evening Marg - I'm jealous. It is good to hear about the Year ending (which I also hate) though I think I'll still finish before the last chapter in future :)

    Did you hear she's going to give the famous ABC Boyer lectures later this year. Should be fascinating.

    i thought the book was great - almost as good as YOW which is my favourite of hers, better than People of the Book :)

  2. I really want to read this; it's on my wish-list! :)

  3. Sounds like a fantastic event. I'm so jealous that you got an autographed copy of her book! What a great opportunity for you.

  4. Great post! Geraldine Brooks was something of a role model for me when I was growing up. I read her book "Foreign Correspondence" as a teenager and realized that I wanted to become a journalist.

    Since then I've enjoyed both her fiction and non-fiction. Like the lady at the event, I was confused by the ending of "Year of Wonders" - thanks for sharing her answer with us!

  5. It sounds like you had an amazing evening getting the chance to hang out with Geraldine Brooks and I am hoping that you get the chance to read Caleb's Crossing very soon. I have heard varying things about it, so I will be interested in hearing your take on it when you are finished!

  6. Sounds like a marvelous evening -- having experienced my first author talk I'm totally in love with it -- it's so neat to be able to hear the author talk about the writing and their books -- and for them to answer the burning questions!

    Being only a few hours from the Wampanoag reservation here in MA, I'm esp eager to read Caleb's Crossing.

  7. What a great experience. I just added Caleb's Crossing to my list of books to read after seeing it everywhere and finally reading the blurb on a fellow library looter's post.

    I hope you enjoy reading it and look forward to your thoughts.

  8. Thanks for sharing. I just finished Caleb's Crossing and will be reviewing it on my blog soon. I have read all her other novels and am also a fan of her husband's books! She was in my area but unfortunately I missed her signing so it was great to hear about it from you

  9. What a wonderful experience and I have also added the book on my to read list thanks for sharing this

  10. I'd add this to my Good Reads list- I almost picked it up last week at the library, and this review makes me regret my choice not to, but there's always next time, :) Sounds like a fun night; I always like going to see authors talk!

  11. Sounds like a fantastic evening, thanks for sharing. Isn't it funny how we judge sometimes that things are too unbelievable in books... but the truth is often even more unbelievable?

  12. I love all of her books, especially, People of the Book. I have recieved a ARC from the author a few weeks ago. I can't wait to read this summer. I have been to Martha's Vineyard. It is a beautiful island. So I can't wait to read. Thanks for sharing your experience with the author. Love a story to has the background of history in the book.

  13. Great book review. This is definitely sold to me now.



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