Geraldine Brooks Reading List
I am a big admirer of Geraldine Brooks – let me count the ways.
First, she stretches herself with every book – they all have different settings, different historical periods, and different stories to tell. Second, her background as a reporter makes her a meticulous historical researcher. Finally, her experience as a war correspondent has forced her to confront some of the more tragic aspects of the human experience. Some of her books have been reviewed more favorably than others, but I think that’s in part because she takes risks – she doesn’t write the same kind of book over and over again.
Her first book on my list is Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.
This was Geraldine Brooks’ first book, and it distilled her experiences as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She spent much of her reporting time during that period covering the tumultuous Middle East.
In this work of nonfiction, Brooks documented the lives of Muslim women, from the queen of Jordan to a Palestinian wife who shared her abusive husband with another woman in a four-room house with 14 children. There are several themes in this book. One is how the original teachings of Islam have been warped by religious extremists to justify all kinds of repression, especially of Islamic women.
Her second book and first novel was Year of Wonders. It’s narrated by Anna, a servant in the household of a rector in a 17th-century English village ravaged by the plague. It’s based on a true story of an English village that quarantined itself, once villagers discovered that the plague was spreading. Brooks’ experiences as a war correspondent made her well versed with the particulars of death and disaster, and her descriptions of the progression of events, as one villager after another dies, are unsparing. The real rector, who persuaded his villagers to quarantine themselves, was said to be a saintly figure; Brooks’ rector is a more complicated fellow.
Her next book was March. This novel is based on the life of the father in Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved “Little Women” (who in turn was modeled on Alcott’s dad). In the novel, the March girls’ father served as a chaplain on the Union side in the Civil War, and was exiled from his family for most of the book. Both the real Mr. Alcott and the fictional March are highly principled people, and part of March takes place on a Mississippi plantation, where March has been sent to start a school for children of ex-slaves in a Confederate stronghold, now controlled by the Union.
In any war, the distance from the person at the front and the family at home is a very great distance indeed, something that Brooks knows something about. Despite some mixed reviews, March won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Next up is the novel that has become something of a book club staple – People of the Book (could it have something to do with the title?) It starts out in Sarajevo, during the terrible civil wars that decimated that city in the 1990s.
As you may recall, Sarajevo was a peace-loving place where Christians and Muslims dwelt in relative harmony – until the war. People of the Book follows the history of a Jewish holy book in Sarajevo, saved from destruction by a Muslim librarian.
As Hanna, a documents specialist, attempts to unlock its history, the story moves from Sarajevo, to late-19th-century Vienna, 15th-century Venice, Catalonia during the Spanish Inquisition and finally Seville in 1480, the home of the artist responsible for the holy book’s beautiful illuminations.
It’s a tragic story in many places, but Geraldine Brooks’ attention to detail and her knowledge of religious conflict makes it a deeply textured story.
Finally…there’s Caleb’s Crossing. This novel takes place among America’s Puritans in the 17th century. It’s told largely through the diary entries of Bethia, a young Puritan woman struggling with the restrictions placed on girls and women in that culture.
Reviewers said that these diary entries lifted Caleb’s Crossing well above the level of a conventional historical novel, because Brooks worked so hard at making Bethia’s prose much like that of a real 17th century New England girl. There’s another fascinating subplot in this story – that of a young Indian man who takes the name of Caleb as he enters the white world and winds up at Harvard. Brooks is too much a student of history for this to be a story full of happy endings, but you leave it feeling that you have truly been immersed in Bethia and Caleb’s world.