Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel reimagines an American trauma, writes Stella Clarke
Geraldine Brooks’s novel March is today’s free e-book selection
‘IBELIEVE fiction matters. I know it has power,’’ Geraldine Brooks said in last year’s Boyer Lectures (titled The Idea of Home). As a war correspondent, Brooks learned the value of reading. It alarms ‘‘ jailers’’ and ‘‘ despots’’, and can instil a sense of justice, hope and purpose where such things are under threat. (The recent fate of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, a campaigner for female education, underscores the fact there are battles not yet won.)
In March, as in the rest of Brooks’s fiction, there are characters who cherish books and fight against the odds to read, write and learn: girls, women, slaves, subjected people. Though she is a historical novelist, the ideals that motivate her are not confined to the past.
Brooks transports readers to earlier eras brought alive by her grasp of their physical realities and ideological contests. She ‘‘ draws inspiration from the past’’ and ‘‘ nourishes it with experience garnered as a foreign correspondent’’. Her fiction is vivid and compelling, but with a constant subtext urging enlightenment against brutality and discrimination.
Brooks is haunted by horrors she has witnessed. Mere reportage, journalistic or historical, leaves a void, which it is the job of empathy and imagination to fill. Imagination, for her, is more like an exercise in psychological confrontation, an effort at redeeming events from absurdity into the significance of story. With a sense of the awkward theatricality of the idea, she admits her impetus to write comes from hearing ‘‘ voices’’. Inevitably, they have something useful to say. After working for years in global trouble spots, the Sydney-born, US-based writer opted to report back, instead, from historical frontlines.
In 2001 she published Year of Wonders, based on a terrible event in 1666, in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, when plague caused the village to be quarantined and its population to be gradually wiped out. Brooks’s talent for immersing readers in the habits of thought and speech, mundane sensuality and quotidian hardships of an earlier time was immediately evident in this fictional debut.
This was followed, four years later, by March, which won Brooks a Pulitzer prize. Her inspiration for March was not only historical but literary and philosophical. The novel embraces a nexus of subjects from America’s cultural heartland. March, her narrator, grew partly out of the absent father of Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved 1868 novel, Little Women. The story and characters in that book derive from Alcott’s family life. Brooks perpetuates this by fashioning March from her knowledge of Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s visionary father, who is connected to the venerated, transcendentalist figures of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau.
The stakes were high. Either this intrepid antipodean author was going to upset everyone with her sacrilegious fiddling among national treasures, or she was going to do it so brilliantly she would be endowed with the US’s highest literary honour.
March travels into the antebellum south, as a peddler, and later an army chaplain during the Civil War. He writes moving letters home to his beloved wife and daughters, but conceives a passion for Grace Clement, a remarkable slave woman. Grace’s voice was inspired by the 1861 autobiography of a literate slave girl. She is a stately figure of strength and courage in a world where her rights were nonexistent and her freedom appallingly constrained.
Characteristically, Brooks pulls no punches in her graphic accounts of the shock of war or the depravity of slavery. Yet the book also explores concerns that thread through all her fiction. March is an abolitionist and idealist whose principles are severely tested in action. Literacy and education are examined for the real liberation they offer, as opposed to a veneer of cultural sophistication. The novel also movingly explores how a couple’s emotional bond can survive an individual’s traumatic experience. The writing of March was triggered by the discovery of a belt buckle that belonged to a soldier of the civil war. It may also have involved an intriguing partnering of history and fiction. Brooks is married to American Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and historian Tony Horwitz. Last year, to critical acclaim, Horwitz published Midnight Rising, a powerful historical account of the uprising that helped trigger the Civil War, which plays an important part in March.
March was followed by People of the Book (2008), concerning the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book that miraculously survived through six centuries of European conflict, and, last year, Caleb’s Crossing. Both these novels journey into the past to explore issues of race and sex discrimination, and Brooks’s faith in the power of education to take people beyond the destructive potential of religious bias, towards a greater humanity.
Brooks has found rich inspiration in her adopted home. Of her four novels, two are steeped in epochs of conflict in US. What is noticeably missing from Brooks’s repertoire is any full-on handling of Australia’s past. Perhaps this is too close to home. She has said: ‘‘ If I ever want to write of my own country, I will have to learn it, like a foreigner, like a migrant, leaf by leaf.’’ When she has learned it, it will be fascinating to see which voices speak to her.
Historians and critical commentators occasionally have been irritated by Brooks’s approach to history. She is consistent in her method, selecting some tempting historical fragment as the seed from which to grow a living, breathing, narrative. Her research is usually meticulous. However, in her afterword to March, she freely admits ‘‘ for those who care about such things’’, to taking the ‘‘ novelist’s licence’’ with timeframes. Debatably, her achievement earns her the right to such small freedoms.
Brooks justifies her novelist’s claim on history via her belief in the fundamental constancy of human nature. Of the characters she chooses to write about, she says ‘‘ they loved, as I love’’, and that ‘‘ is as good a starting point as any’’.
To the act of storytelling, Brooks brings not only erudition but her confrontation with the world’s terrors, and an overriding quest for understanding. In fiction, this veteran reporter has made a home, a place where, she believes, there is heart.