Living History: An Interview with Author Geraldine Brooks

The Pulitzer Prize–winning West Tisbury resident talks with Patch about her new book "Caleb's Crossing."

Geraldine Brooks is a name on everyone’s lips these days. Her new book, "Caleb’s Crossing," focuses on life on Martha's Vineyard in the 1600s and is based on the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag and the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665. The story is told from the perspective of a young Puritan narrator, the intellectually zealous Bethia Mayfield, who takes whatever risks she must in order to educate herself. Bethia befriends Caleb long before her minister father begins to convert him and another Wampanoag boy named Joel Iacoomis, who went to Harvard alongside Caleb, but was killed before he could graduate.

Like many of Brooks’s other novels, "Caleb’s Crossing" is fiction that grows from a seed of historical fact. Upon learning about Caleb from a Wampanoag map, Brooks was taken by the story behind what would have brought him to become, at that time in history, a graduate of Harvard. Along with all of the cultural hurdles he would have faced, he would have had to become fluent in not only English, but Latin and Greek as well. Since such a factual history did not exist, Brooks felt drawn to create one.

The amount of research that Brooks puts into all of her novels is astounding, and "Caleb’s Crossing" is no exception. Readers can expect to be educated about the daily life of the Puritan settlers—including their surprise at the Island’s long, cold winters—and about the strained relationships between the Wampanoags and Puritans. Brooks remarkably brings us back to a time when things here were much more raw and bare. At the same time, she calls to life the Island’s scenery that we all know and love— foggy mornings, windswept dunes and hidden ponds—reminding us of how close we live to the past.

Brooks, both an author and a journalist, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel "March." Her first novel, "Year of Wonders," is an international bestseller, and "People of the Book" is a New York Times bestseller translated into 20 languages. She is also the mother of two boys, wife of writer Tony Horwitz and year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. In 2006, the family stopped dividing their time between here and Brooks’s native Australia and settled on Martha's Vineyard permanently. Just a few weeks ago, the family moved into a West Tisbury farmhouse built not too long after Bethia Mayfield would have walked these shores. 

Sitting down in the kitchen of that farmhouse with Brooks, you can see her love of her Island home and her desire to tell its story in a true way, even if that come through in fiction. Her eyes light up when she talks about Aquinnah and she jokes about never wanting to go off-Island. She heads off on an around-the-world tour to promote "Caleb’s Crossing" this month, but not before she stops in at Bunch of Grapes this Saturday, May 14  at 7:30 p.m., and not before we got to learn more about what it’s like to write fictional history about this place we all call home.


Why did you choose to write about the history of this island in a fictional way?

There are so many voids in the historical record and that leaves a lot of room for imagination. As I started to look into story behind Caleb, who was born and raised in his own culture, I began to wonder how did he become who he became. I was also intrigued by the English. I mean, 1641 is so early. It’s inconvenient enough now to come here in the winter, why did they come here? And even though it’s not the bloody story of the mainland, the story of the English and the Wampanoag on the Island is a tragic story of dispossession.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

The hardest part in all my books is who’s going to tell the story, because I like to write in first person. Until I can hear a voice, I can’t start writing, so finding a narrator is always the hardest part. I didn’t think I could write as a young Caleb or Joel, and Bethia was suggested by an absence in the historical record. It is recorded that Thomas Mayhew’s son Matthew went to Harvard with Caleb and Joel, but he left and never matriculated. There is no historical mention of whether there was tension between Matthew and Caleb . . . all of this is a big if, but if there had been tension, who would have been in position to observe that? Maybe it would be a sister.

Since there were no women’s journals, I relied a lot on court transcripts of women from that time in order to capture the way she would have thought and spoke. The human heart is the human heart, no matter how the furniture changes. Back then, women had a lot to say about how they were treated, and one of the few places you can find that is in the court records. But Bethia was also inspired by a young woman I met in the Middle East who would climb up on the roof of the school to listen to her brother’s lessons.

Why did you change the name Mayhew to Mayfield, but not fictionalize the names of the other characters?

Because I want Caleb to be better known. The Wampanoag have always known and treasured his memory and I wanted to make that the focus. What these two young men, Joel and Caleb did, is such an accomplishment. I want to recognize that.

The Wampanoag tribe here has carried out incredible cultural and environmental stewardship for so long. I don’t think we appreciate enough what they’ve done, carrying the torch of their culture through so much stress of the centuries.

What was different about writing this book than your others?

It was fantastic to be able to write about something that was close and precious to me, and to write about this environment. If you sit quietly long enough here, it’s almost as if you can think yourself back to the past.

How did you find your way to Martha’s Vineyard?

My ties to the Island go back to elementary school in Sydney. I had a pen pal from the Mr. Spock Fan Club and she and her family were summer residents of Menemsha. She always wrote about the Island and sent me these beautiful postcards. Then, when I came to graduate school in New York, I met my husband who had been coming to the Island since childhood. I told him the one place I really wanted to see was Martha’s Vineyard and he brought me here. I fell in love with him and the Island at the same time. We finally moved here permanently in 2006 and now it takes a forklift to get me to leave!

What do you love about being a writer here?

It’s an amazing place, because you have a very diverse year-round community and you have long winters which are a very good time to hunker down and write. Then the whole world comes to us for better or worse in the summer.

What part of the island did you love writing about most?

I love Aquinnah. The first place we rented was a shack on Lighthouse Road. Aquinnah is one of those places on earth where you can feel the power of the landscape. I don’t want to get all mystic-crystal-revelations here, but it has been a sacred place for people for a long time and you can feel that. But I loved finding the ponds, the marshes and the places that are a little less apparent. It seems like, as well as you know the Island, there’s always more to know.

Alan Brigish May 11, 2011 at 10:15 AM
Great interview. Amazing book. Geraldine has done us all a wonderful service by shining a light on a little known part of our history. Its magical storytelling.
Maureen Leland May 11, 2011 at 02:49 PM
Synchronicity - just read this on boston.com: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/05/11/wampanoag_grad_to_be_harvards_first_since_1665/?p1=News_links
deborah forest hart May 13, 2011 at 12:42 AM
I can hardly wait to read the book. It's too bad I'm off-Island now and will have to miss Geraldine's event at the Bunches of Grapes.
William Waterway May 28, 2011 at 04:14 PM
Congratulations to Geraldine - an excellent read loosely structured on Wampanoag Harvard students - Joel Iacoomis and Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. The history of our island and of early American life in the 17th century is well researched and presented in this book - giving us a deeper appreciation of Native American and early colonial life.


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