IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Book Talk: Weaving a novel from a thread of history

By Bernard Vaughan
/ Source: Reuters

By Bernard Vaughan

Little is known of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wampanoag tribe on Martha's Vineyard believed to be the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665.

Only a letter, written in Latin to a benefactor, remains.

From this thread of history, Geraldine Brooks has woven "Caleb's Crossing." Narrated by the fictional Bethia Mayfield, a minister's daughter who secretly befriends Caleb, the novel traces their friendship from exploring the lush wilds of Martha's Vineyard to confronting discrimination at Harvard.

Brooks, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal who in 2006 won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her novel "March," spoke with Reuters about her new book and her approach to historical fiction.

Q: How did you come to write about this subject?

A: "In 2006, I went to Martha's Vineyard to live, and I was avid to know about the Wampanoag tribe that's inhabited the island for thousands of years, so I gathered up some materials that the tribe had brought together. Among them was a map that showed sights of significance to the Wampanoag. On it was a notation mentioning it was the birthplace of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. I leapt to the assumption that this probably happened in 1965 during the Civil Rights movement. I was astonished when I read the date and saw that it was 1665. That just sparked a tremendous curiosity to know how it had happened that a youth raised in his own language and culture had wound up sitting down to study in Latin with the sons of the Puritan Colonial elite."

Q: How much do you research before you're ready to write a book?

A: "I don't do a tremendous amount of research initially. I get the super-structure. I follow the line of fact to find out what is actually known. Then I rely on finding a voice to tell the story. So I read as much as I can of first-person accounts of the time, a lot of writings by the English settlers who'd come to live on Martha's Vineyard in 1641 and a lot of the correspondence from various officials at Harvard regarding Caleb, and the one letter that we have from his own hand, which is written in Latin. I immerse myself in the documentary record until a voice from that time starts speaking to me. When I can hear that narrator, then I can start writing.

"Then I get to a point where I don't know something. My narrator first sees Caleb. What's he wearing? So then I have to research what he would've been wearing if he was hunting for waterfowl. I do it piecemeal; I let the story tell me what I need to know as I go along."

Q: You use some Wampanoag words. Does the language survive?

A: "It's a miraculous story. This language was not spoken for six generations. About a decade ago a member of the tribe had dreams in which she thought her ancestors were speaking with her in Wampanoag, and she went off and got a master's degree in linguistics at MIT and has been working on reviving the language. There are now dozens of Wampanoag speakers in the tribe, and the linguist's daughter is now the first native speaker in generations, having been raised in the language."

Q: How did you make the transition from reporter to fiction writer?

A: "I've always said that I have to credit the Nigerian secret police for that, because they arrested me when I was reporting about Shell Oil being in cahoots with the Abacha military dictatorship to suppress protests by the Ogoni people. As you do as a journalist, I went to the military to get their side of the story and that didn't go very well. They threw me in jail, and I didn't know how long they were going to keep me. I was 38 years old, and I thought if they keep me for a couple of years I would have totally blown up the chance of having a family. So when I got deported after only three days, I went home with a new view of things, and our son was born the following year. And at that point, I didn't want to go off on long open-ended assignments that you need to do. So I needed a new gig."