Geraldine Brooks is able to miraculously take a few historical facts and weave them into lyrical, beautiful, complex fabrics, stories so well-imagined that it’s truly difficult to believe they are not true. The facts remain unaltered, but the stories she creates around them are lovely, heartbreaking, fascinating, and surprising. She is a genius of historical fiction.
I just finished reading Caleb’s Crossing, based on the seminal fact that in 1665, a young man from (what we now call) Martha’s Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Using only this fragile structure, Brooks tells a story narrated by Bethia Mayfield, the local minister’s daughter, about her life on the small island and the life of her childhood friend, a Wampanoag named Cheeshahteaumauk, or Caleb, as he comes to be known by his English neighbors, and it is as much a lesson in the paternalism and chauvinism of the 17th century as it is the story of Bethia and Caleb’s lives. $8.10 at The Book Shop.
Brooks’ novel March won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and is the only one of her novels I have yet to read. It tells the story of Mr. March, absentee father of the March daughters in Little Women, during the civil war.
Another tremendous literary victory is The People of the Book, telling the fictional story of Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator who is responsible for restoring an Illuminated Haggadah (the order of service for a Seder). Told in reverse chronological order, the story follows the Haggadah through time as it travels across Spain, Sarajevo, Vienna, and into Hanna’s purview hundreds of years later. We learn its origin, its illuminator, its owners and caretakers across centuries, each with his or her own story of trauma, deprivation, and triumph. At the end of the book I felt I had seen grace being granted.
In Year of Wonders, written from the point of view of young Cornish widow Anna Frith, who, recently having lost her husband in a lead mining accident, agrees to rent a room to an itinerant tailor. He unknowingly brings with him, and sews into the clothes on which he works, the bubonic plague. The community agrees to quarantine itself from the outside world, instigating a sure but insidious rise of paranoia, accusations and blame that take as much a toll on the village as does the plague.
Last but not least, Brooks’ most recent novel The Secret Chord, based on Biblical text, gives a wildly imagined, intriguing biographical account of King David, as told by his fictional seer and advisor, Natan. If you think it sounds boring to read about the iron-age Middle East, you will be proven pleasantly and stunningly wrong.