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In 1665 a young man from Martha’s vineyard became the first native American to graduate from Harvard College. Beyond his name and the fact that he died only a year later almost nothing else is known about him. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Geraldine brooks uses these slim facts as the starting point for her newest novel. Drawing on period detail she imagines his life story and the uneasy relations between Native Americans and the English settlers on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and on the streets of Cambridge. Geraldine Brooks joins us to talk about her newest book and her career as a writer.
- Geraldine Brooks Also author of the novel "Year of Wonders" and the nonfiction books "Nine Parts of Desire" and "Foreign Correspondence."
Author Extra: Geraldine Brooks Answers Your Questions
Ms. Brooks stayed after the show to answer a few more questions.####
Q: Approximately how long did it take the story to be formed in you and how long did it take to write?
– From Nickie via Email
A: Dear Nickie,
I started thinking about the story in the late 1990s but only sat down to write it about three years ago. I spent quite a lot of time listening to Wampanoag elders, both in person and in oral history recordings, and diving into archives of early Harvard before the story started to take form in my mind.
Q: Is there an Australian story through the past that the author can think of that might compare with her new novel? Congratulations on your Pulitzer Prize.
– From Shawn via Facebook
A: Dear Shawn,
Yes — actually I tried to work on it for a while, but the narrator’s voice never came together for me. It was about Jane Franklin, the wife of the Tasmania governor at the time of the Aboriginal wars and near genocide, who adopted an Aboriginal child and tried to turn her into an English “lady” with tragic consequences. I am now thinking about a different Australian historical novel that also will involve indigenous/colonial relationships…I’m hoping that this time I will be able to find my narrator’s voice.
Q: I’m really enjoying the show, and am wondering about William and Mary College in Virginia. It was founded just after Harvard and, I believe, had Native American boarders from its inception. Does the author know anything about this, and how it fits into history? – From David via Email
A: Dear David,
I’m afraid my knowledge of William and Mary is scant – but it is an interesting question as I think it was a Catholic school and I wonder if that made any difference, for better or worse…
Q: *Such an interesting show! Have not yet had a chance to read her book, but will do so now! I wonder if your guest can comment on John Eliot and the Natick Indians. In my junior year E. O. Wilson mentioned that at the very first Harvard Commencement in 1636, the local Indians were invited to take part in the festivities, but after soundly defeating the English, they were never invited back. (Does she know about that?) I’m a writer, and grew up in Boston, Cambridge, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket before traveling to Australia and writing Swimming With Crocodiles. *
– From Will via Email
A: Dear Will,
I have to get your book — love the title. In fact Commencement was THE big party in Cambridge for many years and accounts say that Indians took part in the celebrations. I’m sure that all fell apart after King Philip’s War when relations became embittered and riddled with tensions of all kinds.
MS. DIANE REHMThank for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Martha's Vineyard in the 1600s is the setting for Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Geraldine Brooks', latest novel. It's a story based on an intriguing fact. The first Native American to graduate from Harvard College did so in 1665, and he came from Martha's Vineyard. Her new book is titled "Caleb's Crossing." And Geraldine Brooks joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMOf course you are welcome to be with us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Geraldine. It's so good to see you.
MS. GERALDINE BROOKSGood morning, Diane. It's wonderful to be back with you.
REHMAnd to congratulate you on winning the Pulitzer Prize for "March," which you and I talked about when it came out.
BROOKSSo we did.
REHMIt was just a wonderful book, and this -- I read this all day yesterday. "Caleb's Crossing" is really a revelation on so many fronts, but you began exploring the history of Martha's Vineyard when you got up there. And after you had moved from Virginia, your interest really took a whole new direction.
BROOKSI think like so many people, I was drawn to the beauty of the island, the physical beauties. But when you move there and you see what it's like come September, and it's like somebody picks up the island and shakes all the extra people off it (laugh) and you're left with the year-round community. And it's a very diverse community, and a very enriching part of it, of course, are the Wampanoag tribe, who have been (word?) .
BROOKSAnd I was very keen as a new arrival, or a wash ashore as they call us, on Martha's Vineyard, those who weren't born there, to know more about Wampanoag history and culture. And luckily, the tribe has a wonderful cultural center and lots of programs and materials. And among them was a map that the tribe had prepared showing all the sites of significance to the Wampanoag on the island. And there was a notation on that map that said birthplace of Caleb, first Native American to graduate from Harvard.
REHMAnd what fascinated me was that you saw '65 and you thought 1965, and perhaps I'll run into him, until you realized it was 1665.
BROOKS1665. I grew up in Australia. The white history of Australia didn't even start for more than another 100 years after that, and already there was Harvard? And already Harvard was a place where an Indian youth could sit down and study in Latin with the sons of the colonial puritan elite?
BROOKSAnd Greek and a bit of Hebrew. And I was just astonished, and I just really wanted to know more about him and about Harvard at that time.
REHMAnd of course, the problem you ran into was there was so little about him personally. I mean, great fodder for a writer's imagination, but still so few facts.
BROOKSA few facts, no feeling. No sense of what it was like to be this young man and make this extraordinary journey from being raised in his own language and culture, which we can be sure that he was, because if he was born about 1646, the English only arrived just a few handfuls of families in 1641, and they were at the other end of the island. So he wouldn't have had early contact with them. I think we can safely assume that.
REHMThe island was owned originally by these Native Americans, and then bought piece by piece, as it were, from the tribe of Wampanoag.
BROOKSYeah. And the first transaction was with the sachem or leader of the group of Indians who inhabited the lands around what's now known as Edgartown. And it's an interesting story because many of his band didn't agree with selling that land. And instead of just doing it as an English Lord would have done it, he gave a section of the land to the dissenters and then sold to the English from the parcel that he retained.
BROOKSBut the whole idea of ownership of land was very wobbly and it's unclear what was meant by the Indians when they agreed to see this land. There is one remark noted by one of the English settlers at the time saying, he laughed at me at the thought that I could own land and by it from him. He said, I've said you can build your houses and hunt there, what more do you want? So whether or not there was a sense of a misunderstanding going on...
REHMAn actual transaction?
BROOKSThere was a, you know, there's a legal paper trail. You can actually go and see that in the archives in the courts on Martha's Vineyard, which is almost a time travel experience.
REHMYou know, I found myself wondering about your background, having been born in Australia, and then moving to the island of Martha's Vineyard, then discovering the story, or the germ of the story about Caleb, and whether you, as an Australian, related to that story because of your own background.
BROOKSI think, you know, in Australia, we grow up very well aware of the dreadful dispossession of the Australian aborigines, and that story was still going on during my childhood and youth, when the stolen generations, children being snatched out of their aboriginal families, and -- forcibly in many cases, and put into white schools. And so there was a resonance there. But I, you know, Peter Carey talks about when you're in a country that's not your own, you're on a moral holiday.
BROOKSAnd you feel guilt about the dispossession that was done in your name in your own country, but you can perhaps be more objective about this other case. And I think I set out in that spirit, thinking I can rummage in this closet because it's not my own. And in the middle of researching the book, I found out that that was very much not the case, because I learned that one of my great-great-grandfathers would have known Caleb, was actually in Cambridge and he was the brother-in-law of the school master who prepared Caleb to go to Harvard.
REHMOh, my goodness.
BROOKSSo I did have a horse in this race. I do share in the fruits of the dispossession, and it is very much a story that I have to take some responsibility for.
REHMDo we have any real sense of how Caleb came to go to Harvard?
BROOKSI think we can surmise fairly certainly that he would have been identified as a promising scholar at an Indian school that was started by the son of the leading English settler of the island who was by all accounts a sincerely religious man. Not one of your Taliban Puritans at all, a very, for his time, forward-thinking guy within the limits of that time. Unfortunately, he did feel that the Indians' religions were satanic and that they were abandoned by God and it was his job to Christianize them as quickly as possible.
BROOKSBut he actually worked very hard to educate the Indian youth of the Vineyard, and there was an Indian school before there was a school for the English children. And I think that we can pretty safely say that Caleb would have learned English, and to read and write under his auspices. And, you know, there was a tradition among Native American peoples that the sons particularly of the sachem or leaders would go to another tribe and learn what they had to say and then come back and enrich their own people with that learning.
BROOKSSo it wasn't, you know, it wasn't a stolen children situation in that way, I don't think anyway. That's the -- that's what I've decided to take from this story. And because I think Caleb did fairly clearly embrace the intellectual life that he was offered. We do have one document that's come down to us from his own hand.
REHMWas the Indian school within Harvard College?
BROOKSOh, that's a separate thing. This one was just a little makeshift thing on the island.
REHMI understand that.
BROOKSAnd then, once the children were considered ready, they were sent away to prep school either in Roxbury -- and then when they got better at their Latin, to Elijah Corlet School in Cambridge. And we know that Caleb was there with another youth, Joel Iacoomis, and they studied and successfully matriculated to Harvard where there was a separate dormitory building that has been put up with English donations, specifically for the education of Indian youth. And they would have taken classes in the main hall, which was pretty fancy, but not very well built, wooden college.
BROOKSAnd it's astonishing that, you know, the Puritans had barely set foot on the soil, and they were planning a college. And not just any old college, but one that would give a degree that was equivalent to Oxford in Cambridge.
REHMBut that's why I wondered whether the construction of the Indian school at Harvard was one of the first buildings constructed.
BROOKSIt was probably the third building.
REHMThird. Interesting. And you're listening to the lovely voice of Geraldine Brooks. She's the author of three novels. She won the Pulitzer Prize for "March," and we are now talking about her newest, "Caleb's Crossing."
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Geraldine Brooks is with me. Her latest book is titled "Caleb's Crossing" all about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. When you first saw the name Caleb, what did you think? Were you shocked? Were you surprised? Were you thrilled? Were you wondrous?
BROOKSAll of the above, all of the above. I immediately started to noodle around to see what I could find out about him. And lucky for me, it was around the time that we had a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, so what better place. And so I did my favorite thing, which is archive diving to see what Harvard had to say. And then also, of course, on the island, talked to the remarkable cultural custodians that are the Wampanoag tribe members who have kept their culture alive and vibrant and thriving despite all the pressures of dispossession that began in 1641 and really accelerated as commercial interests pushed on the island and pushed on the people.
BROOKSAnd this kind of conflict -- cultural conflict that started so innocently and then very quickly, you know, turned into what we know to have been this massive force for dispossession. But writing the novel, of course, we know all that history, but my characters don't. It still...
BROOKS...it still hasn't happened and so they can look forward to a different future than the one that we know came to pass.
REHMLet me ask you about the young woman from whose perspective the story is told, Bethia Mayfield. She and her family are based on another family that did in fact live on the island.
BROOKSYes. I've borrowed some biographical details from the missionary Mayhews. Thomas Mayhew, Senior was the guy who actually bought the English rights to the island from a couple of British aristocrats. And his son Thomas, Junior, was the one who went and negotiated to buy the land again from the sachem.
REHMAfter his father died.
BROOKSNo, before. The father dispatched the young son, who must've had a nice personality and a light touch, because in all the sources, he really does seem to have been a very beloved figure and, you know, basically a goodhearted man. And so they arrived and that family became very much associated with the Christianizing enterprise on the island, starting with Thomas, Junior and his school and his missionary work. And he has his first convert about a year after the English arrive and start their struggling little settlement.
REHMSo tell me about how your fictionalized character Bethia Mayfield meets up with Caleb and why that friendship becomes so powerful.
BROOKSI wanted to imagine what it would be like to be a girl of that time to live in the very constrained world of young Puritan women. These were very sincerely religious people. They had crossed the world, you know, to practice their religion freely. My particular little group -- I always wondered why did the English come so early, 1641? Why would you do that? It's inconvenient enough living there now. I almost didn't get off the island last night because there was fog, you know.
BROOKSSo why would you, at that early date, put seven miles of treacherous ocean current between yourself and the mainland? And it turned out that they were trying to get out from under the thumb of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It had become quite Taliban-like in the...
BROOKS...final insistence on, you know, my way or the highway to the point where they were actually slitting off people's ears if they disagreed on where you should put a communion rail and things like this. So I imagine this young girl is growing up at a time when her brother is being prepared for Harvard to follow his father's footsteps in the ministry.
REHMAnd she is brighter than he.
BROOKSShe's a very bright intellectually curious young woman, but her education stops when she's been taught how to read. And this is what the Puritans believed, that women needed to know how to read their Bible and recite their catechism.
REHMAnd that's it.
BROOKSAnd anything else would addle their brains, "addle their wits" -- that's a direct quote -- and make them unfit wives because the husband has to rule his house. And you can't have an intellectual who's going to be finding fault with him.
REHMSo she is trained to go in to clean other people's homes.
BROOKSShe's going to be a wife and mother and fate dictates that on the way, she becomes an indentured servant. But I was inspired by the story of a young Afghan girl, from my days back as a foreign correspondent, when the Taliban barred women from going -- girls from going to school. She used to climb up on the roof of her house and listen to the classes going on in the madrasah down below where her brother was allowed to attend.
BROOKSAnd when he came home in the afternoon, she would do his homework for him. And so I took her story from contemporary times and contemporary theocracy and I made Bethia a listener in who has to steal fire, like, from atheists. She has to steal her education by listening in at the keyhole and by learning what her brother finds very difficult.
REHMNow, Bethia would have been the pronunciation at that time.
BROOKSWell, I thought so, but I just got an email from somebody who's actually named Bethia and she said she's always said Bethia so I'm going to have to...
REHMBethia (unintelligible) ...
BROOKS...I'm going to have to rethink that. I got the name off a grave marker, a 17th Century grave marker on the vineyard and I thought it was such a pretty name.
REHMIt's a beautiful name.
BROOKSBut I'd never heard it pronounced, so in my head, it's been Bethia all this time and...
REHMAnd I, of course, said Bethia.
BROOKS...now I have to rethink it. But I think you're right and I'm wrong.
REHMNow, then how do Caleb and Bethia come together?
BROOKSSo part of her intellectual curiosity is that she steals her brother's Latin books when she's sent out to do a chore like gathering clams. And she becomes an explorer of the island and tries to learn the natural history of the place. And on one of these elicit jaunts, when she's supposed to be gathering food for the board, she encounters a young Indian youth who she later names Caleb and they have almost nothing in common.
BROOKSTheir world view is completely different. Their experience of the world is completely different. Their destiny, as far as they know, is completely different. But they have one thing in common, which is that they are both intellectually alive curious people who want knowledge whatever it costs. And that brings them together.
BROOKSAnd as she learns about his culture and world view, he is drawn into her world, the magic of the book where you can know a man's mind who's been dead for 100 years or who lives across the sea and you've never met him. This, he thinks, is very powerful stuff and he thinks he can use it to help his people.
REHMHow does Bethia's family feel about this?
BROOKSThey don't know. She realizes that this is so far beyond the pale of what's acceptable for a young Puritan girl that this remains an innocent, but clandestine friendship. Even to herself, at first she's in denial of what she's up to, but she always notices that Caleb tells her where he plans to hunt at this or that phase of the moon and this or that height of the sun. And when she's in that vicinity, he tells her later he can always find her because she leaves a trail as broad as a herd of running deer.
REHMSo this title "Caleb's Crossing" really has many, many underlying meanings.
BROOKSIt does. I think, you know, as the novel progresses, it's in the form of scraps of journal that Bethia writes. And I wish there were such a journal, but the fact is there is -- that no diaries have come down to us from women in 17th Century colonial America.
BROOKSNot one, zip, nada and absolutely nothing. And the ones in the next 50 years are really not journals so much as spiritual diaries. So it's -- you know, that's where the novelist has to take the dive off the imaginative springboard.
REHMAnd this is what you wish had been written.
BROOKSI wish we had -- you know what I really wish and hope, and it's not impossible, that one day somebody in a dusty Cambridge attic will find a cache of writings by Caleb. That's what I really wish for because we do have one letter that he wrote to his English benefactors and it's in Latin and it's exquisite. It talks of the myth of Orpheus and how it relates to his own crossing from one culture to another.
REHMHow well did he do at Harvard?
BROOKSHe did very well. It was a rigorous course. I thought naively that Puritans would mainly be interested in theological study, but that wasn't the case. This was a very broad liberal arts education. They studied the classic literature of ancient Greece and Rome, poetry and rhetoric. They talked about political theory, they studied astronomy. And he managed to hold his own with the sons of the Puritan elite. He was there with -- the late Governor Dudley's son was a classmate. The famous preacher John Eliot's son was a classmate and leading other military figures' sons.
BROOKSAnd he managed to complete this course of study, as did his compatriot, Joel Iacoomis. Iacoomis didn't graduate because he was tragically killed before graduation, but all evidence says that he completed the work with great distinction. Both of them did. And even John Winthrop, who was no big fan of the Indians, writes, you know, very warmly of how impressed he was by hearing these two young men and testing them in Latin and Greek.
REHMCourse, you must have to wonder how they managed socially and how their classmates regarded them. Were they part of the class or were they considered outcasts?
BROOKSI have two theories that are contradictory. One is that -- well, here's what I did, which was I went -- because some of their classmates were quite notable and went on to have the kinds of lives that do leave a paper trail, I went and looked as many writings of theirs as I could. And not one mention of these two Indian students. And I thought that's odd because you'd think it would've come up in that correspondence.
BROOKSAnd I think that there are two explanations. One is that by the time they arrived at Harvard, they'd been to prep school for several years. Perhaps they were so fully assimilated that they were unremarkable to their fellow students. And it was a time when, you know, Indians and English were always interacting so it wouldn't have been as outstanding as perhaps later.
BROOKSAnd then, the other theory is that they were socially excluded and they weren't really a part of the college life and that's why there's nothing written about them. And I've tried to write the Harvard part of the novel to take into account both possibilities as much as I could.
REHMPulitzer Prize winning novelist, Geraldine Brooks. Her newest book is titled "Caleb's Crossing." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." The idea that his friend Iaconis (sic) did not live to cross that stage was such a tragedy.
BROOKSIt's -- you know, it's such a brutal history in so many ways. And I've tried to focus as much as I can on the astonishing achievements of these young guys and the joy that I've experienced. And I'm sure you're experienced of embracing knowledge and finding yourself in the company of educated people that you can discuss ideas and debate. And I've tried to bring some joy into the story, which I'm sure there must've been because at that time these two youths didn't have to stay. They could've left. Many Indian youths did leave. They found that this wasn't the life for them. But these two -- and I think they probably supported each other a great deal.
BROOKSIt's a bit like the Posse Foundation today where you don't take one kid from the inner city, you take, you know, a few. And like the young women at the Citadel, one alone isn't going to make it. A group can support each other.
REHMOne caller says she knows someone who pronounces the name of the protagonist as you do, Bethia.
BROOKSWell, now, I'm really mixed up. (laugh)
REHMYeah, well, exactly. So perhaps it's up to each individual. Bethia really does bristle with the limitations placed on her. This story, for me, said so much about women and how they are treated even today. I mean, the history is a long -- one long arch.
BROOKSIt is a long arch. On the other hand I'm very happy that a young Vineyard Wampanoag woman is going to graduate in a couple of weeks.
REHMIsn't that extraordinary?
BROOKSAnd she'll be given her degree by the first...
REHMFrom -- from...
BROOKS...female president of Harvard.
REHM...from the first female president of Harvard.
BROOKSSo the arch of the universe bends slowly, but it bends towards justice. Let's hope so.
REHMIsn't that wonderful? You must have been thrilled to learn that. When you began this book, did you know that there was such a student there?
BROOKSNo. At the time I began this book, there were a couple of Vineyard Wampanoag in graduate school at Harvard and I certainly knew of them and got to know one of them. Tobias Vanderhoop (sp?) is a graduate of the Kennedy School and Carrie Ann Vanderhoop, Vanderhoop being a very common name among the Wampanoag on Martha's Vineyard, graduated from the School of Education. But it was only after I started working on the book that I encountered Tiffany Smally (sp?) as a freshman. And she was working on the dig in Harvard Yard that has been looking for the Indian College.
REHMAnd that really does create a circle. Geraldine Brooks and the book we're talking about is titled "Caleb's Crossing." When we come back, you'll hear Geraldine read and we'll open the phones. Stay with us.
REHMAnd Geraldine Brooks, would you, before we open the phones, read for us from your newest novel, "Caleb's Crossing"?
BROOKSSo I'm going to read a short segment after Caleb and Bethia have been in contact for a while and they're both intrigued with the other's world. Bethia feels that this is a little fraught because it's so beyond the pale of Puritan teaching, which is so strict and so excluding of other opinions about what could possibly be godly.
BROOKSBut she is starting to have her faith shaken a little. Caleb, for his part, is very keen to learn how to read these books that he feels have information that could help his people. And so they hang out together and this a scene of them hanging out. They've both given each other new names. She's called him Caleb after Moses' guide in the wilderness and he's called her Storm Eyes because she's got these dark grey thundercloud-colored eyes.
BROOKS"One afternoon, not long after, we collected wild currents, taut and juicy and gorged on them. I lay back on a bed of soft leaves, my hands under my head, watching a few fluffy clouds dance across the blue dome of the sky. Behind me, I could hear the chink of stone on stone. He was never idle, not for a minute.
BROOKS'Why do you look at the sky, Storm Eyes? Are you looking for your master up there?' I could not tell if he was mocking me so I turned over, resting my chin in my hands, and gazed at him to better read his expression. He was looking down, concentrating on aiming the sharp, deft blows that sent tiny shards of stone flying. He had a piece of leather like a half glove wrapped around the hand that held the arrowhead he was making.
BROOKS'That is where he lives, is it not? Your one God, up there, beyond the inconstant clouds?' I did not dignify his ridicule for so I deemed it with an answer. This merely emboldened him. 'Only one God? Strange that you English, who gather about you so many things, are content with one only. And so distant, up there in the sky.'
BROOKS'I do not have to look so far. I can see my sky god clear enough right there,' he said, stretching out an arm towards the sun. 'By day, (word?) , tonight (word?) moon god will take his place and there will be (word?) god of the fire,' he prattled on, cataloging his pantheon of heathenish idols. Trees, fish, animals and the like, vanities, all of them invested with souls, all wielding powers.
BROOKSI kept a count as he enumerated, the final tally of his gods reaching 37. I said nothing at first because I hardly knew what to say to one so lost. But then, I remembered the singing under the cliffs and in a voice barely audible, the merest hiss, Satan's voice I am sure of it, whispering to me that I already knew (word?) .
BROOKSThat I had already worshiped him many times I bathed in the radiance of a sunrise or paused to witness the glory of his sunset. And did not (word?) have power over me, governing the swirling, salty tides of my own body, which not so very long since had become to ebb and flow with the moon?
BROOKS'It was good,' the voice whispered. It was right and well to know these powers, to live in a world a swirl with spirits everywhere ablaze with divinity."
REHMGeraldine Brooks reading from her newest novel, "Caleb's Crossing." As I was reading the book, I wondered whether beneath the words, beneath the feelings, there might have been a love, a romantic love, developing between the two.
BROOKSI think Bethia, who is telling this story, can only tell what she allows herself to admit. And I felt that this relationship that they had developed, in her mind, was the love of the brother that she had lost. She has a twin brother who dies at a young age and her older brother is so unkind to her. And her only interaction with him is when he is chastising her for some failure that he perceives and he's jealous of her intellect because intellectual work comes so hard to him. And so in Caleb, she finds the missing brother and that's the story that she tells herself and that she tells us.
REHMBut beneath that, could be something that she doesn't tell herself?
BROOKSIt could be.
REHMCould be. Let's go to the phones and first to St. Louis, MO. Good morning, Christine.
CHRISTINEGood morning. My question is related to Ms. Brooks background. I've read both of her two previous novels, loved them both, blew me away. She seems to write differently, I guess, than most modern novelists, almost a time gone by type to her writing. And so I'm curious about your background. Did you have any favorite authors when you were growing up that have inspired you? And I can't wait to read this latest book. Thank you.
BROOKSThank you very much. Yes, I had, you know, in my family, we didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, but the library was everything. So I would wait for Saturday and my family would go off and -- altogether, my sister and my mom and dad and I, would get on the bus and we'd go to the library and everybody would come home with their own stack of books.
REHMWhat part of Australia were you in?
BROOKSAnd, you know, my parents were great role models in this. They always had a stack of books on each bedside table and my father read to me every night until I could read for myself. So that was the background music of my childhood. And I have to say that was the first time I ever felt something that I didn't know until I experienced it again much later, but was lost, was for a pile of adventure books by the English children's writer, Enid Brighten, that my parents purchased for me secondhand and I remember when they arrived.
BROOKSI was so excited and I was flushed and I could hardly swallow and I thought, I've never felt like this before. It's a bit weird, but not unpleasant. And it was another five years before I experienced it again in a very different set of circumstances. But I think, you know, the fact that I experienced my first stirrings of physical desire for a bunch of used books might've been predictive of the future journey.
BROOKSBut in terms of writers that I love, I would say Marilyn Robinson, for her books "Gilead" and "Home," which I think are almost perfect, Jane Austen of course, Australia's Tim Winton, so many wonderful writers, Andre McKeane (sp?) , I think, is remarkable.
REHMLots of good writers coming out of Australia that I've had on the program, really giving us a different view of ourselves.
BROOKSYes, you know, when I was growing up at school, we didn't really have Australian literature. We had a colonized imagination. We read British children's fiction mostly and it was very odd for me because these writers would write about things like frost, that I'd never experienced and read about Rowan trees losing their leaves in winter. And, you know, our trees lose bark, but the leaves stay right where they are.
BROOKSSo it wasn't until I was, I think, 11 that I read an Australian children's writer named Ivan Southall and being in touch with your own reality being described in a book was a marvelous thing.
REHMTo Marlboro, Vt. Good morning, Andy.
ANDYGood morning. I consider myself extremely lucky because I just finished "Year of Wonder" about two weeks ago, which I loved, and I'm thrilled to be able to talk to Geraldine Brooks. You know, "Year of Wonders" was such a wonderful evocation of a time and place that so different from our world today. And I wondered, it's almost a very similar time period to this book and I'm wondering did the meticulous research you did for that help you with this book and, you know, was it a foundation to build on.
BROOKSThat's a great question Andy. It did help me because "Year of Wonders" is set in a small village in the Panines (sp?) in exactly the same year that Caleb graduates from Harvard. And so to research that book, I had to get into the mindset from which the English, who came to the colonies, the American enterprise, were fleeing in a way.
BROOKSSo I had the background noise, if you like, of these people's beliefs and the conflict that had sprung up between the traditional Anglican way of worship and what -- they wouldn't have called themselves Puritans. They would've called themselves Precisions, people who wanted a cleaner, more direct relationship with the scriptures.
BROOKSAnd so I knew what the driving force had been. The difference is that the people who came to the Massachusetts Bay colony, and now I know that that included some of my own ancestors, were a different class of people from the people I wrote about in the village of Aim (sp?) who were lead miners and shepherds and not educated -- not literate people.
BROOKSThe Massachusetts Bay colonists, in large part, were an educated and wealthy elite because otherwise, you couldn't afford to make this journey at that time.
REHMDo you have any records from your ancestors who came to Martha's Vineyard?
BROOKSNot to Martha's Vineyard. I wish they'd come to Martha's Vineyard and bought some land. That would've been great. They were all over Massachusetts elsewhere, but they were -- I know that my grandfather was in Cambridge at the time that was Caleb was being educated there and he was working as a glazier.
BROOKSSo I've written him into the novel. Frione (sp?) Cutter, the glazier, who comes to fix a broken window at Harvard when the boys have become unruly.
REHMYou know, you talk about Cambridge at the time as being a smelly, mucky, dirty place.
BROOKSI'm seeing it through Bethia's eyes. And actually, it was very helpful to me because I was able to spend some time with the archeologist who were excavating Harvard yard and trying to find 17th century Harvard, which has been so built over and so covered over in so many ways.
BROOKSAnd speaking to these wonderful archeologists, they can give you a picture -- they can put you right there where the garbage dumps would've been and, you know, that was -- nobody was picking up the trash. And they were tossing their slops into the creek and it was, to start with, not a great place to put a town because they didn't understand how the drainage worked. And it was swampy and it was muddy and it sounds like it was pretty miserable.
REHMTo Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning John.
JOHNGood morning, ladies, thank you for taking my call.
JOHNMs. Brooks, I have a question. You had mentioned John Eliot a little bit earlier in passing and, of course, he was one of the well-known missionaries of the time who also sent some students to the Indian school at Cambridge...
JOHN...to translate a bible into Massaschusett. While Caleb was at school, you know, he would've been surrounded by the Christian theology. Even in his sort of secular education, you know, he still would've gotten that...
BROOKSYes, it wasn't really secular, that education. I mean, they say that we learn from the pagan cultures, but Christ is in the bottom of all things. So, yes, but please, carry on.
JOHNTen years later, less than 10 years later, after Caleb's graduation and his death, King Philip's War breaks out between two groups, the Indians and colonists. And I wonder if you have any thoughts on the Christianizing influence or the missionary influence, whether that affected or was part of the cause of that war, the two cultures sort of, you know, clashing on theology.
REHMAnd before you respond, let me just remind listeners, this is "The Diane Rehm Show."
BROOKSI think that -- you know, this, of course, was the background noise of that conflict. But I think that if you read Jill Lepore's excellent book, "The Name of War," which looks at that terrible and brutal war about which most of us, I think, know so little, even though the casualty rate was off the charts, that it was really a conflict of land use
BROOKSAnd the feeling by the Wampanoag that they, you know, had reached out and helped and allowed a great deal of their land to be used by the English and now they're just being pushed and pushed and pushed. I mean, it was, as many wars are and many will be in the future, I think, a war of resources and a war of two colliding world views and a different -- you know, when you read -- and luckily for us, the Wampanoag become literate very early and we have writings talking about how they thought it was just mad that these English would bring beasts that weren't of the place to trample the clam beds where they'd found food year after year and suddenly it was gone with these hard hoofed animals that they'd brought.
BROOKSThat they turned over the soil, the grasses that fed the deer, turned the soil upside down and then it would all blow away. You know, it didn't make sense to them. And I think that that, more than, you know, your manner of worship was probably much more of a source of conflict at that time.
REHMThanks for calling, John. And here is a wonderful postscript. It's an email from Janks in Great Falls, who says, "As Ms. Brooks is probably aware, there's a stain glass window at the National Cathedral depicting Thomas Mayhew christening an Indian, no doubt a Wampanoag. My late wife," he says, "Lydia Bittle Middleton, was a descendent of Mayhew's and inherited a Philadelphia lowboy given to his granddaughter as a wedding present. My wife sold it for enough to buy a house in Nantucket, which Island Mayhew had sold to their original settlers." That's quite a circle, isn't it?
BROOKSHe got two beaver hats and a few hundred pounds for Nantucket.
REHMWow. Have you ever seen that window at the National Cathedral?
BROOKSI am going to go there today.
REHMAbsolutely. While are you here, you must. And you must talk to the Dean Sam Lloyd. I'm sure he'd be just delighted to meet with you. Geraldine Brooks, I want to congratulate you on this book. It's just wonderful.
BROOKSThank you so much, Diane.
REHMAnd thank you for being here. Thank you all for listening. Geraldine Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. Her latest novel is titled "Caleb's Crossing." I'm Diane Rehm.
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