Reviewed by Miriyam Glazer, Rabbi, Ph.D, Professor of Literature and Chair of the Literature, Communication & Media Department at American Jewish University.
Every once in a while you fall in love with a writer. Depending upon your generation, gender and sensibility, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Ernest Hemingway or even F. Scott Fitzgerald might have captured your imagination and heart. Or a Yiddish writer like Chaim Grade, a fascinating one like Rhoda Lerman, a brilliant young one like Dara Horn, a Romantic like Israeli Dorit Rabinyan or the witty, thickly nuanced S.Y. Agnon. I've fallen in love any number of times - how could I not, after all, given that my professional field is literature!
But in recent years I've become a bit crustier, a little less ready to trust, a little more reluctant to allow a writer to so preoccupy me, so overwhelm me, so sweep me off my feet that I would be willing to throw to the winds an episode of Boardwalk Empire, The Borgias - or most of all - an episode of my very own daughter's program Off Limits - if it meant I could turn even one more page of the novel!
Until I started reading Geraldine Brooks, that is. And then not only did I revert to my old sweep-me-off-my-feet-I'll-follow-you-anywhere self, but so did my husband! Since discovering Brooks, we've passed many an hour once riveted to our TV now sitting side by side on the couch, mutually immersed in reading the latest Geraldine Brooks novel on our Kindles.
And how could we not? Once you discover the novels of Geraldine Brooks, you may be willing to miss [fill in your favorite TV program] too.
Who is Brooks? Australian by birth, Brooks is a former foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans for the Wall Street Journal, and her command of detail and her depth of understanding of the emotional, moral and physical cost of social conflicts shows it. In addition to her nonfiction works - one about women in Islam, one about her years in Australia - Brooks has written four extraordinary novels. What makes the latter so unforgettable and so strong is that, along with their vivid images, powerful emotions and fascinating characters, all four are rooted in history.
The historical moments Brooks chooses are troubled ones of high drama and great resonance: two in the 17th century, one in the 19th and one from before the Spanish Inquisition to the present. Year of Wonders (2001), her first novel, is based on the heartrending true story of the English village Eyam, in Derbyshire, a plague-infested village that in 1666, chose to quarantine itself to prevent the disease from spreading to other villages and the rest of England, though it meant that most of its villagers would (and did) die. At the heart of the story, at its emotional core, is a young woman, the shepherdess Anna, through whose voice Brooks recreates the time, the place, the pain, the passion, the moral and emotional conflicts, with a vividity that is staggering. Year of Wonders is the first of Brooks' must-reads.
Brooks' second novel, March (2006), is equally brilliant and equally a page-turner - indeed it won the Pulitzer Prize. Set during the Civil War, the novel fills in the missing pieces of an earlier novel - Louisa May Alcott's beloved children's book Little Women. This, however, is no children's book: it is the story left untold in Alcott, the story of what happened to Mr. March when he went off to serve as a minister in the Civil War. As steeped in the details of its era as was Year of Wonders, this book, too, is a masterpiece in conjuring up the conflicts, losses, aches and desires, as well as the moral sensibility of the time in which it is set:
"What happened?" I demanded.
"I was just after having a bit of fun with the baby sambos. They was standin' round droolin' like starvin' cur dogs so I tol' them, go ahead, clean the pot," he said with a shrug. With a callousness I cannot fathom, he had not warned the ravenous children to beware the heat of the iron kettle, which had been sitting some hours on the coals. The burned child's sobs were pitiful, as the scalding molasses clung to his tender palm.
"Give me your canteen," I snapped, and when he did not immediately hand it over I snatched it from him and poured cold water on the child's hand. "Could you not have given him a spoon to use?
"The man grimaced. "You think I'd let a n----- brat eat off of my spoon?" I strode away, furious, carrying the boy in my arms. Behind me, I heard ther man's indignant voice, and then the other men's mocking laughter. (p. 139)
In her latest novel, Caleb's Crossing, Brooks returns to the 17th century, but in a setting far removed from plague-ridden Europe. Most of the story takes place on Martha's Vineyard, a place settled by those who found Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Colony too suffocatingly rigid. In evocative, rich, period-prose we learn about young Bethia (Batya), a young Puritan whose life changes when she first encounters a young Native American boy - whose life, too, from that moment, changes as well. Fascinating in its detail and in its evocation of time and place, the novel also has both a wistful and a tragic underpinning, given the historical outcome of that first so promisingly moving encounter between Native American and Anglo.
Of the four novels, the one which is actually most amazing, most riveting and ultimately most moving from a Jewish point of view is People of the Book, Brooks' imaginative recreation of the history of a real artifact of the 14th century: the Sarajevo Haggadah. It was as a correspondent in Sarajevo, covering the Bosnian war, that Brooks herself first heard the story of the Haggadah:
"...the city's fire-gutted library reeked of burned pages after the barrage of Servian phosphorous shells. The Oriental Institute and its marvelous manuscripts were in ashes...the fate of the Sarajevo Haggadah - priceless jewel of the Bosnian collections - was unknown, and the subject of much journalistic speculation." (Afterword, p. 369)
After the war a Muslim librarian was revealed as the one who had rescued the book during the shelling and had hidden it in a bank vault. This was the second time in history a Muslim had rescued the Haggadah: the first was in 1941, when an Islamic scholar smuggled it out of the museum "under the very nose of a Nazi general" and hid it in a mosque in the mountains until after World War II.
So much for its final rescue - but what of its journey from mid-14th century Spain? Who commissioned such an elaborately illuminated Haggadah to begin with? How did it survive the book-burnings of the Spanish Inquisition? How did it land up in 17th century Venice? What motivated the Catholic priest to save it from being burned? Was he, like so many others of his era, a Jew who had converted? How did the book eventually get to Sarajevo? Who left the wine stain on its pages? Who is the elegantly illuminated black woman dressed in saffron at the Seder table?
The interweaving of Brooks' imagination with history leads to a novel that fills you with awe -at the survival of the Haggadah itself; at the courage and determination of the Muslim men who saved the Haggadah from the Nazis and then the Serbs, and all through Brooks' fusion of knowledge and imagination. This novel truly is a tour de force.
I urge you to find People of the Book at your local library. In fact, buy all of the books written by Geraldine Brooks or download them, go sunbathing and read them on your Kindle! I promise - you, too, will be enthralled and amazed.
Miriyam Glazer, Rabbi, Ph.D. is Professor of Literature and Chair of the Literature, Communication & Media Department at American Jewish University. Her books include, most recently, Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to their Beauty, Power and Meaning: A New Translation and Commentary in Memory of David L. Lieber.