Vivid Historical Fiction from Geraldine Brooks

I read Geraldine Brooks’s three historical novels in reverse order–the most recent, People of the Book last–and given the way Brooks likes to scramble the chronology of her books, she would probably think that was just fine.

Brooks uses the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated manuscript of mysterious origin that has survived several potential destructions, as the inspiration for People of the Book, in which Australian archivist Hanna Heath is tapped to restore the manuscript in Sarajevo in 1996. Hanna is both scientific and intuitive in her approach to restoration, and as she examine the mansucript, she reveals and intuits layer after layer of its long history, a series of escapes of near-destruction during several of humankind’s more violent upheavals and conflicts. Critical moments of the book’s history take place in 1940 Sarajevo, late 19th Century Vienna, 15th Century Venice, Spain during the Inquisition, and 1480 Seville. Hanna is an appealing character,  an independent and intelligent woman who is deeply committed to the work she does. During the course of the novel, she explores her personal history in parallel to the steps of studying this extraordinary manuscript, and the constant juxtaposition of past and present keeps the narrative engrossing.

Brooks’s second novel, March, is the story of Mr. March, the father whose absence is a central issue in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. March is a Unitarian abolitionist and pacifist who serves in the Union army as a chaplain. Before the War, he and his wife, Marmee, use a hidden room in their home in Concord as stop on the Underground Railroad. The events leading into the Civil War, some of the conditions and experiences of the War, and particularly the intellectual climate of New England in the mid 19th Century are wonderfully realized here. Apparently for some readers, March’s intense idealism and naivete are irritating, but I found him wonderfully appropriate to Alcott’s novel and the Transcendentalist movement of the time. It is, of course, the challenge of the historical novelist to recreate not only the nature of a particular time and place, but also the consciousness that would be a possible and even plausible human experience of that time and place, and while March would be harder to believe in the world of the 21st Century, he seems to me quite plausible and even endearing in his 19th Century Bostonian passionate distaste for human slavery and violence.  I was inspired to re-read some Thoreau and Emerson after finishing the novel and to read about the Utopian experiment of Brook Farm. Brooks does an extraordinary job in each of her three novels of gathering together details of geography, people, events, and the texture and smell of life.

Year of Wonders was Brooks’s first novel, set in the village of Eyam, “the plague village,” in England in 1666. Narrated by Anna Firth, a young woman who suffers the loss of her husband and children to this bloody and painful death and then becomes the maid to the village minister and his wife. Again, Brooks’s detailed research and the wealth of information she weaves into this riveting novel are notable. She describes in sensual detail the life of the farmers and miners before and during the year of the plague and creates a set of characters whose challenges, conflicts, failures, and sacrifices are both particular to this time and place and reflective of that which is common to human experience past and present.

These are novels for those who enjoy sensual, descriptive prose and complex characters and conflicts as well as those who love well-researched historical fiction. If, like me, you managed to miss them as they were published, rush to the Library for one today! I can’t wait to see what Geraldine Brooks writes next.