Our interview with Geraldine Brooks about Caleb's Crossing is BookPage's May cover story. The novel is about a Wampanoag boy who graduated from Harvard in 1665—and the Puritan woman he befriends, and who longs for an education.
In the interview, Brooks explains some of the history behind her fiction, like how some women in the 17th century were literate and longed for a better lot in life.
For some fantastic visuals to go along with the interview, watch this trailer from Viking, which takes us from Martha's Vineyard to Harvard, the settings of the novel:
Do you want to read Caleb's Crossing?
What's your favorite novel by Geraldine Brooks?
Today marks the publication date for Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, the subject of our May cover story. Telling the tale of an early part of American history, the book follows a young Native American boy who becomes a Harvard graduate—in the 1660s.
The book is being published at a time when Wampanoag culture is on the rise again. Not only will Tiffany Smalley, the first Martha's Vineyard Wampanoag since Caleb be graduating from Harvard this spring, there's also been a resurgence of the language.
"A young native linguist named Jessie Little Doe Baird got her linguistics degree at MIT and has been working on a dictionary of the language and language classes," Brooks told me. "Her child is the first native speaker in several generations and there are a number of people now who are fluent. She got a MacArthur Genius grant for her work in the language reclamation. . . . it really is of great interest to everyone on the island seeing this come back. 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 and I went on to talk about the importance of language, and how the way it is constructed can shape or reveal things about a society. "I lived in the Middle East for a while and Arabic is structured so differently," she said. "The way the root words have developed give you such insight into the thinking of people. Maybe if you're a native speaker, you're not aware of all the echoes of the words that share a common root, but you know, it really struck me that [Arabic has] a word for 'child' that relates to things like 'dawn' and 'soft clay' but also 'one that arrives at an inopportune moment,' " she laughed.
In Caleb's Crossing, the way that Bethia describes her discovery of the Wampanoag language echoes these thoughts.
Over time I had come to grasp that the chief principle of their grammar is whether a thing to them is possessed of an animating soul. How they determine this is outlandish to our way of thinking, so profligate are they in giving out souls to all manner of things. A canoe paddle is animate, becuase it causes something else to move. Even a humble onion has, in their view, a soul, since it causes action—pulling tears from the eyes.
Will you be picking up Caleb's Crossing this week?
The first paragraph of BookPage's review for The Dry Grass of August immediately caught my attention:
When a new novel gets compared to some of the biggest hits of the last 10 years like The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, its author has some awfully big shoes to fill. Throw in comparisons to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the stakes are raised so high that readers may be skeptical that any book could be so good.
Set in 1954, The Dry Grass of August is about a 13-year-old girl who travels to Florida with her family and Mary, their black maid. Harrison writes: "As the trip progresses, it gets harder to ignore the color of Mary’s skin. In the wake of a violent and hateful crime, Jubie is exposed to injustice and intolerance of which she had been blissfully unaware, and hairline cracks in the Watts family shatter open, bringing shameful secrets to light."
The April print edition of BookPage also includes an interview with Anna Jean Mayhew, who is a 71-year-old debut author. You can read an extended Q&A on BookPage.com, in which the author tells us how she stayed passionate about a project for 18 years; why she chose to write about race relations in the South of the 1950s; and how she feels about using the "N" word in historical fiction. It's a very interesting interview and I'd recommend you check it out.
The Dry Grass of August is on sale today—do you want to read it? (Here's another point in the novel's favor: It retails for only $15!)
Coming in October from Little, Brown—The Wolves of Andover, the prequel to the 2008 hit The Heretic's Daughter. Dallas novelist Kathleen Kent tells the story of Martha Allen and Thomas Carrier, who in her earlier novel experienced the Salem Witch Trials. Their courtship sounds equally daunting: Thomas, who played a significant role in the English Civil War, finds himself pursued by assassins sent to the New World from London, while Martha navigates the complicated world of a household servant.
Related in BookPage: Our review of The Heretic's Daughter.
A prolific, ambitious and talented writer, Louisa May Alcott was a public figure who nevertheless kept much to herself—so much, in fact, that a large portion of her creative output was not credited to her until decades after her death. In recent years, biographies like Eden's Outcasts and Louisa May Alcott have shed light on Alcott's private life, mining diaries and letters to create a portrait of a passionate, conflicted woman who understood the tradeoffs necessary to pursue a creative life.
In a buzzed-about debut, former English teacher Kelly O'Connor McNees uses the author's life as the foundation for a novel. On sale tomorrow, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott (Amy Einhorn Books) is set during the summer of 1855, when the 22-year-old Louisa meets a young man who causes her to rethink her future aspirations. (Read our review of the book here.)
McNees took the time to answer a few questions about The Lost Summer from her home in Chicago.
Why Louisa May Alcott? What about her inspired you to tell this story?
While I had always loved Little Women, I never really knew much about Louisa May Alcott herself. A couple years ago I picked up the celebrated and controversial biography written by Martha Saxton, and from the first page I was completely engrossed. Louisa was complex, passionate and very surprising. So many assumptions I had made about her, based on the tone and story of Little Women, turned out to be incorrect. I had always imagined a prim and docile spinster, but Louisa was an activist, loved the theater, worked as a nurse in the Civil War. And she wrote countless stories that were nothing at all like Little Women, under pen names. There was so much more to her than I’d ever imagined, and I began to think about the question of how we should separate Louisa the woman from Louisa the historical icon. Who was she, really? That was where the story began.
As an English teacher, did you ever have the opportunity to teach Alcott?
These days, Little Women isn’t part of a typical middle-school curriculum. So no, I never taught the book. Though I often recommended it for independent reading projects!
In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Louisa's (fictional) romance with Joseph Singer ended up inspiring the Jo and Laurie romance in Little Women. Do you see other common themes between Little Women and your novel?
Little Women was intensely autobiographical and Louisa encouraged the comparisons readers made between the novel and her life. She modeled Jo on herself as a young woman and Meg, Beth and Amy on her sisters Anna, Lizzie and May. I tried to make these connections part of my story, but I also tried to examine the many aspects of Louisa’s real life that differed from the idealized world of Little Women. For example, Mr. March is virtually absent from Little Women; in the story he is an army chaplain away at war. This plot point does not parallel an experience in Louisa’s own life. Bronson Alcott was a teacher and philosopher and was very much present in the Alcott girls’ lives.
Biographers have made much of what they cast as Louisa’s choice to exclude her father from the story of her childhood. Saxton argued that Louisa felt so conflicted about her difficult relationship with him that she couldn’t grapple with it on the page. Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent novel March uses the details of Bronson’s life to imagine the missing story of Mr. March. Brooks disagreed with the view that Louisa’s authorial choice stemmed from psychological unrest; for Brooks, this decision was merely a fictional construct that forced the characters of Little Women to grow and change in ways that serviced the story.
I have no real opinion on who is right about this question, only an intense interest in the question itself. It is fascinating and problematic to try to discern 150 years later what Louisa’s intentions may have been. Little Women is a moral tale written for young women; it’s not a surprise that the story is a kinder, gentler version of the complexities of real relationships.
Can you tell us about your first encounter with Louisa May Alcott's work?
I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Little Women. Maybe 12. I think I was especially intrigued by the relationships between the sisters because I don’t have a sister and always wondered what that would have been like. The story always stayed in my mind and I reread the novel every couple of years. The most cynical person in the world can’t help but be charmed by the March family.
But I have to say that Louisa as a writer really came alive for me just a couple years ago when I first read A Long Fatal Love Chase. This is a novel that was not published in her lifetime, not even under a pseudonym, because it was deemed too sensational. (It was finally published in 1995.) It’s about a woman named Rosamond who is seduced by a man who looks and acts very much like the Devil. Soon she uncovers a lie about his past and tries to escape from him, hiding in Italy, France and Germany. He stalks her across Europe—it’s a truly captivating thriller. You can imagine Louisa writing it in one furious and exhausting session, ratcheting up the tension chapter by chapter.
Louisa loved stories of fantasy and danger. You might remember the plays Jo writes and performs with her sisters in Little Women; Jo grows out of her interest in these tales, but I think in her heart, Louisa herself never grew out of them. And something about that fact was very moving to me as I tried to understand her.
You did a lot of research for a work of fiction. What was it like reading Louisa May Alcott's letters and diaries? How did they compare to her fiction?
It was wonderful! After reading several biographies of Louisa, turning to her own words felt like the closest I was ever going to come to having dinner with her (if only!). Her voice in the letters and journals is different from her fictional voice. She is wry and friendly and casual, though still aware that a reader is listening. These documents are fascinating.
Your novel is a work of fiction, but it's based on a real person, who had her own life and her own history. Do you feel that there are certain lines one should not cross when writing this type of fiction, or a certain "code of ethics" that should be observed?
This is an important question, and I’m not sure I have the answer to it, though I’ve thought about it an awful lot. This may seem like an evasion, but it’s important to me for readers to understand that the Louisa in my novel is not the Louisa. She is the Louisa of my imagination. Another writer might have imagined her some other way. With that in mind, I think all a writer can do is try to be true to the spirit of the person who inspired this character and to write with integrity.
What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
As I worked on this novel (which, incidentally, I was sure would never see the light of day), I always told my husband that my greatest hope was just to write a good story. I had no illusion that it was going to be the kind of novel that changes a reader’s life, and I certainly had no intention of trying to compete with other novels written about the Alcotts and their contemporaries, such as March and John Pipkin’s riveting story about Thoreau, The Woodsburner.
My hope is that readers who loved Little Women will take pleasure in this story, will think about that novel in a new way, and will consider, maybe for the first time, the real woman who wrote it.
Find out more about Kelly O'Connor McNees and her debut novel by visiting her website.
One of the first big releases of January 2010 is Elizabeth Kostova's follow-up to her hit debut, The Historian, a literary vampire story that topped bestseller lists in the summer of 2005. Her new novel, The Swan Thieves, is a tale of love, obsession and art that, like The Historian, goes backward and forward in time to unravel a mystery. We asked Kostova a few questions about the book as a teaser for fans--and a preview of our full-length BookPage interview coming in January.
What elements in The Swan Thieves will most appeal to fans of The Historian?
I think readers who enjoyed The Historian will probably enjoy the mix of historical and contemporary settings in The Swan Thieves, as well as the travel to France and through time.
Impressionist art is frequently referenced in books (yours!) and films (Amelie), and probably adorns 8 out of 10 dorm room walls. What is it about these artists that continues to speak to people today?
I think we still look at and love the Impressionists because they capture something about nature that is both vivid and idealized. As we watch the destruction of natural beauty in our world, we probably value these images in a new and piercing way. I think it's also important to note that many people are understandably sick of Impressionist art from sheer over-exposure to it, and because in reproduction it radiates a certain prettiness. Looking closely at an original Impressionist masterwork is still a radical experience, and very different from looking at a notecard or tote bag.
The mystery of The Swan Thieves revolves around a 19th-century female artist, and the sacrifices women in particular must make to pursue art. Is there a real-life artist who inspired this character?
Beatrice de Clerval is not based on a single real artist, but in developing her I was inspired by the life of Berthe Morisot, one of the six original exhibiting Impressionists, a dedicated and very gifted painter who also protected the conventions of her social and family life.
Who is your favorite character in the new novel, and why?
I think I'm fondest of Andrew Marlow, because he changes the most over the course of the book. I feel very close to him in his struggles to figure out who he is, and I like the way he evolves from vanity to love--rather as Professor Rossi does in The Historian.
How was writing this book different from writing The Historian?
In writing The Swan Thieves, I had to move away from using the models of Victorian literature and into something more exactly fitting my story in terms of language and structure. I also wrote it in large swathes, as different episodes became vivid for me, and then rearranged these in the editing, rather than writing straight through from beginning to end as I did with The Historian. I learned a tremendous amount from writing The Swan Thieves and it is a deeply felt book, for me.