Author Geraldine Brooks gives voice to the voiceless

When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks sits down to write, the characters’ voices flow through her mind. If she doesn’t sense them, she doesn’t write their story.

Brooks, the author of “Caleb’s Crossing,” will speak Thursday evening at Watermark Books about how a germ of an idea transformed into a spectacular novel.

“I love to find stories from the past where truth just pushes it at the absolute barriers,” Brooks said. “The fact that it really happened is such a jumping-off point for me.”

Brooks is the author of “People of the Book,” “Year of Wonders,” “Nine Parts of Desire” and the Pulitzer Award-winning novel “March.”

Born and raised in Australia, Brooks grew up hearing tales of faraway places. After college, she studied in the U.S. and later became a foreign correspondent. One of her first “foreign” assignments was in Ohio. But, soon she was sent to the Middle East and reported from more than 22 countries, including Iran, Bosnia, Israel and Ethiopia.

By hearing hundreds of people’s stories, Brooks garnered a knack for others’ voices.

“I was seeing people in the most desperate situations,” Brooks said. “I saw how some people grow at the times of catastrophe.”

This rich body of “real-life” drama helped Brooks understand what it means to be disenfranchised.

In “Caleb’s Crossing,” Brooks takes the historical fact that Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Native American, earned a degree from Harvard College in 1665. Little is known about this scholar who learned Latin and Greek and crossed back and forth between two cultures.

Seven years ago, Brooks moved with her husband, author Tony Horwitz, and two sons to Martha’s Vineyard, where Caleb grew up. She soon became fascinated with the island, its character and history. She also wanted to learn about her Wampanoag neighbors. After discovering Caleb’s feat, she began her research.

“The earliness of that date (when Caleb earned his degree) just rocked me,” Brooks said. “The story took root in my imagination and blossomed.”

Because not much information on Caleb exists, other than folktales and one letter written in Latin by him, Brooks decided to create a story based on what few facts she garnered.

“At first you have the intriguing fact,” she said. “You don’t know it’s going to be a story.”

For the narrator, Brooks created Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister, who desires an education that she is denied because of her gender. Bethia’s and Caleb’s lives become intertwined.

In 2006, while a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard, Brooks began digging further into Caleb’s life. She spoke with those involved in the archeological dig at the foundation of the Indian College at Harvard where Caleb lived, finding facts regarding the habits of students in the late 1600s. She researched court records, gleaning the way 17th-century women spoke. But more importantly, she felt the characters.

“Someone has got to rise out of the grave for me to write,” Brooks said. “If nobody’s talking, I have to move on to a different character.”

Brooks explained that she must “hear” a character through historical documents and sense a setting by walking through its structures, reeds and vines. The smell of the ocean and the ripples of its waters make their way into her stories.

This New York Times best-selling author excels at giving voice to the voiceless. In “Caleb’s Crossing,” she engulfed herself in both Puritan values and Wampanoag customs. She examined the differences in each group’s beliefs in property, cosmology and governance.

While doing her research, Brooks discovered that in 1630, her great-grandfather, six generations removed, was brother-in-law to the schoolmaster who instructed Caleb in Latin. After learning this fact, she wrote him into the story with a brief cameo appearance.

Brooks’ father, a singer, had grown up in California and settled in Australia before Brooks was born. His ancestors were Puritans.

“I feel like I’m hearing a voice that someone from the past was telling me how it was,” Brooks said. “It’s interesting just to remind people what life was like for women (back then).”

Brooks was inspired to write about Bethia after years of watching women who struggle for the right to be educated in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

“My job is to tell an engaging story and get people to carry along with me,” Brooks said. “It’s very important to remember what it was like to be unheard in your society.”

Readers have put “Caleb’s Crossing” on many best-seller lists — including the one at Watermark.

When the publisher, Penguin Books, mentioned bringing Brooks to Wichita, Sarah Bagby, the owner of Watermark, was ecstatic. Bagby said she wants to bring readable and popular novelists to Wichita.

“The way she (Brooks) writes history is so incredibly accessible and smart,” Bagby said. “ ‘People of the Book’ was so incredibly and beautifully written, and ‘March’ won the Pulitzer.”