Thursday, August 4, 2011

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks's new book, Caleb’s Crossing, takes its inspiration from the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665.

From the author's Q & A with Barbara Chai at the Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street Journal: How did you decide to write about Caleb’s life? When did you first hear of him?

Geraldine Brooks: It came about from trips to the vineyard before we moved there full-time. I was really intrigued to learn of the uninterrupted Wampanoag community, which is a very big part of the society there. I wanted to know more about it. I got a map from the tribe, and it showed all the sites of significance. On it was marked Caleb’s date of graduation from Harvard – I thought it said 1965 and I thought, how interesting, I wonder if he’s still alive. I realized I misread it and it said 1665 and it just blew my mind. As somebody who didn’t grow up here, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Harvard existed in 1665, much less as a place that educated Indian youth, along with these sons of the Puritan elite. My imagination was fired and I wanted to know how it came about that this young man that was from the first-contact generation on the island came to be identified as a scholar, how he became fluent in Latin (the qualification for matriculation) and what it would have been like to cross between different cultures.

I started to research it in a desultory way. Then when I had a fellowship at Radcliffe at Harvard, I really scoured the archives to see what was there. Sadly, there’s very little. The paper trail is extremely scanty on this young man and 17th century Harvard. There’s just not a lot of documents that came down to us that shed much light on it. I talked to people in the tribe and got the bare facts of his life. But what it was like to be him and all the connective tissue of how it came to be is lost to recorded history. For a historical novelist, that’s a good thing. It gives you the space you need to let your imagination work.

What’s a catastrophe for a narrative historian, is a feast for...[read on]
See--Geraldine Brooks's favorite historical fiction.

--Marshal Zeringue