By AMY J. BARRY Special to the Day
"Caleb's Crossing" by Geraldine Brooks, a New York Times bestseller, is this year's selection for the annual One Book, One Region event that kicks off Tuesday at the Mystic Arts Center.
Brooks is the author of six books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "March." Earlier in her career Brooks was a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She lives in Martha's Vineyard and Sydney, Australia, her native country.
"The goals of One Book, One Region are to bring people together to discuss ideas, to broaden the appreciation of reading, and to break down barriers among people," says Betty Anne Reiter, director of the Groton Public Library.
And that's why she thinks Brooks's historical novel is a great fit for the program. Inspired by a true story, "Caleb's Crossing," narrated by Bethia Mayfield, a young woman growing up on Martha's Vineyard in the 1660s, is about Bethia's friendship with Caleb, the young son of a Wampanoag chieftain, who eventually became the first Native American graduate of Harvard College.
"Geraldine Brooks is someone we've hesitated to contact because she is so well known," Reiter says. "This year, the subject matter and appeal of the book encouraged us to give it a try. In past years we've chosen books whose subject matter led to programs and discussions on the Holocaust, bullying, health care, immigration, etc., and this seemed the perfect opportunity to consider our Colonial history and relationships to Native Americans through programs and book discussions."
Brooks recently talked to Daybreak about participating in One Book, One Region, and the experience of researching and writing "Caleb's Crossing."
Q. Are you pleased that "Caleb's Crossing" was selected as this year's One Book-One Region title-and that people all over southeastern Connecticut will be reading the book and meeting to discuss it?
A. It's really thrilling when a community comes together. I love the whole concept of the community read idea-elaborating on the book group. It's a great way to bring people together to agree and disagree about a book-on a community (level), and particularly that it's my book, is really lovely.
Q. Was the fact that you live on Martha's Vineyard an impetus for writing this book? And did you find the ghosts coming to life of these real and imagined people as you were researching and writing it?
A. You really have to hunt for these ghosts, to tell you the truth. The place isn't physically that different (now), but in terms of the mindset of the 17th century, it's challenging to put yourself in that (place). Even though the range of human emotions is not that different, there were such constraints on the range of options for behavior for Puritan women. Of course, there was the challenge of perceiving what Wampanoag life was like. Even though they became literate really early, we don't have accounts of what happened, which is one reason I chose to (tell the story) from a biased point of view. The body of first-person material left was not by women. Women were not encouraged to learn to write.
Q. Bethia is a fictional character and yet she is so believable and dimensional. It seems like you really get her-is that true?
A. Oh sure. Sometimes she exasperates me. But I did try to consider what it would be like to have an able intellect and be in proximity to intellect-your brother and father have an intellectual life and you're not allowed to participate in it. I was thinking of her character while I was covering the Middle East where women's roles are very circumscribed and women almost have to steal an education the way Bethia does-eavesdropping their way into an education.
A. Was it difficult to write in the language of 17th-century New England?
Q. It's almost a kind of mystical thing that happens for me. (Once) I hear the voice of my narrator, she speaks very fluently to me and doesn't seem strange to me. It's almost like learning music by ear. I read everything I can get my hands on written in the time and place. I get a sense of the cadence and how people express themselves. The Puritans wrote a lot-there's a lot of material you can read to get yourself into the sound of the language of that time.
Q. How serendipitous that you started writing the book in 2006 while you were a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard, and its publication coincided with the graduation of Tiffany Smalley-the first Vineyard Wampanoag since Caleb to earn a degree from Harvard-more than 300 years later. How did you feel when you learned this?
A. I had been thinking about the book a long time before I started the research for it. Even when I did get to know about Tiffany and read about her, I didn't think the book would be published the same year as her graduation. I thought it would take longer. It was a stunning experience to be at the commencement ceremony when not only Tiffany was graduated, but Joel Iacoomis (Caleb's friend and fellow Wampanoag, shipwrecked and murdered on his way back from Martha's Vineyard to Cambridge for commencement) was recognized and given a posthumous degree. Many members of the Wampanoag tribe were there in regalia. Luckily, some things do improve.
Q. Why do you write historical fiction?
A. I try to find stories from the past that intrigue me. I don't even try to find them; I just stumble across them all the time and try to imagine what it was like then.
I was intrigued that a young Wampanoag from Martha's Vineyard had graduated in 1665, such an early time, to sit and study with the sons of the Puritan Colonial elite. It's not a story that's often told. Stories about Native Americans are on such a narrow bandwidth. I wanted to explore the story of this Native American intellectual.
The landscape of the island and imagining the landscape of early Cambridge was a wonderful part of researching the book-Harvard was not the well-heeled elite college it is today-and getting a sense of that time and place where they built on a very badly drained marsh. Here on Martha's Vineyard it's quite easy. I just go for a walk. Not much of the island has changed. You can narrow your eyes and squint and see it as Caleb and Bethia would have seen it.