Finding a piece of history in her own backyard
Whether she’s imagining the history of an ancient manuscript, as in People of the Book, or an English town determined to survive the plague in A Year of Wonders, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks is a master at bringing history’s little-known but fascinating stories to life.
For her fourth novel, Caleb’s Crossing, she found inspiration close to home: the tale of a Wampanoag boy who became a Harvard graduate. Brooks first learned about Caleb after seeing a notation on a map. “I’m thinking [this happened in] 1965, the Civil Rights era, and when I found out it was 1665, my imagination started spinning,” she says during a call to her home on Martha’s Vineyard, which she shares with her husband, writer Tony Horwitz, and their two sons.
"Whenever anyone says, your women are ahead of their time, I tell them, go and read more 17th-century women!”
But that line on an old map of the island was one of very few records of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk’s existence. “To tell you the truth, I had a hesitation about creating him too much in full, seeing that we know so little, and I wanted to respect that historical distance with him,” Brooks says.
Instead, she approaches the story through another character: Bethia Mayfield, a minister’s daughter with a hungry mind who has picked up her learning a piece at a time while eavesdropping on the lessons of her older (and less intellectual) brother Makepeace. Bethia meets Caleb while gathering clams on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, near Gay Head. The daughter of a minister and the granddaughter of the island’s governor, both of whom pride themselves on their good relationships and just dealings with the native tribes, Bethia is less intimidated by an Indian boy her own age than the average colonial girl. When she speaks to him in his language, a friendship is born.
“I don’t remember who said this, but there’s a saying ‘learn another language and you gain another soul.’ I found that very true when I was studying Arabic,” Brooks says. “The way it’s structured and the way the root words have developed give you such insight into the thinking of people. So it was fun to sort of think about that at a time when the English were trying to put their very foreign stamp on the landscape and bring in foreign species and things like this, to think of the original names for things on the island.”
The understanding that Bethia and Caleb develop as a result of their friendship utterly changes their lives. Bethia is fascinated by the shaman of the tribe, Caleb’s uncle, whose rituals are considered the devil’s work by her father. Caleb is eager to adopt the ways of the colonists in order to level the playing field for his people.
Eventually Caleb comes to live with Bethia’s family so he can be tutored by her father; then the two (along with Makepeace and another Wampanoag boy, Joel) go to Cambridge. Their story is narrated by Bethia in a diary written at three different points in her life, though no actual journals by colonial women before 1750 exist.
“There were literate women, certainly,” Brooks says, “but they were just so damn busy! They were working from before sunup to after sundown, and you can imagine how fatiguing that all was. Also paper was very scarce, and the stress was on women reading the Bible but not necessarily writing, so it was a small population that would have found writing easy or pleasurable.”
Bethia, of course, is among that small number. Living in a time when being an intelligent woman carries few rewards, she struggles to match her desires with the role that society has set for her (even her name means “servant”). Though she is perhaps an unusual woman for her time, Bethia deals with her situation in a way that feels authentic to the period—as do the people around her, even those who love her. Her father’s pleasure in her learning, for example, “was of a fleeting kind—the reaction one might have if a cat were to walk about on its hind legs. You smile at the oddity but find the gait ungainly and not especially attractive,” Bethia muses.
Though Caleb is also seen as an oddity, his gender still gives him more privileges than Bethia, and though she’s proud of him she can’t help but resent this injustice, especially as her personal trials and tribulations mount.
“I think it’s a slightly arrogant view to imagine that it’s only in our lifetime that women have had the wit to see that their lot stank,” Brooks says, citing examples like the poet Anne Bradstreet as well as multiple court cases from the period that involve women speaking up for themselves “in ways that are very recognizable to second-wave old feminists like myself. So whenever anyone says, your women are ahead of their time, I tell them, go and read more 17th-century women!”
Readers will come away from Caleb’s Crossing with a new appreciation for this time in American history, and an interest in the Wampanoag people, who are going through something of a renaissance these days. Tiffany Smalley will be the first Wampanoag from the Gay Head Aquina Tribe since Caleb to graduate from Harvard later this month. And thanks to a MacArthur genius grant, Jessie Little Doe Baird has resurrected Wopanaak, the language of the Wampanoag, which had been lost for several generations. “When the tribe’s medicine man died the year before last, the language was heard on the cliffs at his graveside ceremony, probably for the first time in very many years,” Brooks says.
Perhaps we’ll get to hear that language in the film version of Caleb’s Crossing—though the novel hasn’t been optioned for film yet, Brooks is hard at work on a screenplay. “Previously I didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and I would just sling the option in the direction of the West Coast and not think about it anymore, but this one I felt very strongly about and I had such a strong visual sense of it. It just so happened that a friend of mine, who actually knows how to do this, was between projects, so we’ve been collaborating on it. Even if nothing comes of it, I feel that I’ve learned an immense amount from the process of doing it.
Brooks is also finishing up her selections as editor of Best American Short Stories 2011 (she was working on the introduction just before our talk). “I’ve got them all scattered at my feet now and I’m looking down and remembering what the very specific pleasures of each [story] were. It was a wonderful exercise, because I started it with a high heart and finished it in a complete state of moral collapse!” Reading 120 stories (she chose about 20 for the collection) also introduced her to new favorites. “I’m absolutely embarrassed to say I didn’t know Steven Millhauser before this!”
In a novel that so carefully dissects the joy and pain of learning, it seems natural to ask Brooks what she thinks about knowledge and its boundaries. Not surprisingly for a trained journalist, she doesn’t believe there should be any.
“I’m a big supporter of Julian Assange, let’s just put that out there,” she says laughingly of the WikiLeaks founder. “It’s not for anybody to tell anyone what they’re entitled to know. Put the information out there and let the chips fall where they may.”