Preview: Father's reading to author Geraldine Brooks planted seeds for writing


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Geraldine Brooks grew up on Bland Street in Australia but the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist leads a spicy writing life infused with a rich stew of cultures that include the Balkans, the Mideast and the ways of Native Americans.

As a child, she said, "The trip to the library was huge. We'd come back with an armload of books. Books were everything. We didn't have a lot of material stuff," the 57-year-old author recalled in a telephone interview from her home on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard.

Geraldine Brooks

Where: Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.

When: 7:30 tonight.

Tickets: Sold out. Call 412-622-8866 for possible openings.

While her Australian mother told her stories of the Outback, her American father always made time to read to her. Ms. Brooks, who spent a decade as a war correspondent for The Wall Street Journal before becoming an acclaimed novelist, speaks at 7:30 tonight in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall.

Her most recent novel, "Caleb's Crossing," is inspired by the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, who, in 1665, became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Bethia Mayfield, the articulate, outspoken daughter of a minister, narrates the story. Ms. Brooks appears at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Ten Literary Evenings, which are sponsored by the Drue Heinz Trust. Her lecture is sold out.

Each week, Ms. Brooks and her family took the bus to the library because they did not own a car. Along with her parents and her sister, she piled her books on a Scandinavian bedside table.

"My Dad always read to me every evening from 7 to 7:30. He always picked a book that was just a sliver over my head," she said, adding that reading is fantastic preparation for becoming a writer.

After school, she also made time to watch William Shatner play Capt. James T. Kirk on "Star Trek," an indulgence that turned her into "an absolute tragic Trekkie."

To research the history that informs "Caleb's Crossing," Ms. Brooks mined Harvard's 17th century archives for "a pretty small load of ore." Then, she visited the Wampanoag Indians.

"We don't have a lot from Caleb's own hand, a couple of documents he signed. The historical record is just so full of voids. The only way to engage with the story is through imaginative empathy."

For a scene where Bethia meets Caleb before he hunts waterfowl, she had to learn what the Wampanoag wore for that activity.

"Sometimes you've got a handful of clams and sometimes you bag a deer," Ms. Brooks said.

While researching Caleb's life, as an Australian, she felt she was on a bit of a moral holiday. "I have to bear the guilt of colonial treatment of aborigines in Australia. That's my particular burden of guilt. I prospered off the backs of the mistreatment of that particular group."

To her surprise, Ms. Brooks discovered she had a personal connection to Caleb.

"As far as I knew, my Dad lived his entire life in California. Then I found out, to my astonishment, not only was my family deeply involved in the great migration in the 1630 colonization of Massachusetts, but my great-grandfather, sixth generations removed from me, almost certainly knew Caleb."

The author's sixth great-grandfather had a sister who married a schoolmaster and he prepped young boys in Latin before they enrolled in Harvard.

"Elijah Corlett was married to Barbara Cutter and she was the sister of my sixth great-grandfather. He was a glazier in Cambridge," Ms. Brooks said. In the novel, "I have him come and repair a window at Harvard. He's a minor character."

That discovery, she said, "was kind of magical in the sense that I had this very personal connection to that time and place that I hadn't expected."

Part of the magic in "Caleb's Crossing" derives from the author's careful use of period appropriate language.

"I need Bethia to talk about a fetus. I'm sure she is not using the word fetus. When I find that the word is shapeling, I think it's really transporting."

Although Wampanoag Indians suffered at the hands of white settlers during the 17th century, they were never violently displaced from their land on Martha's Vineyard.

"They are airline pilots. They are going to Harvard. They are doing everything that everyone else does," Ms. Brooks said.

"The most exciting thing here is the reclamation of the Wampanoag language, which wasn't spoken for six generations. It's being brought back. There's a young girl who is 7. She is a native speaker. There's an amazing cultural renaissance going on," the author added.

Ms. Brooks is a convert to Judaism and her next novel, which is set in Jerusalem during the Iron Age, revolves around a guy named Nathan who was critical of King David.

"I got really interested in what is the career path for that guy. I will be going to Jerusalem."

books

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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