Pulitzer-Prize winning author Geraldine Brooks enjoys writing in the void.
That void has been a plague-ravaged English village in 1666 where the townsfolk voluntarily quarantined themselves to prevent the spread of the deadly disease. It's also the mystery surrounding the life of a 17th-century Wampanoag named Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, who became the first America Indian to graduate from Harvard. And in her 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "March," Brooks jumped into a void left wide open in one of America's most beloved works of fiction, "Little Women."
First published in 1868, that novel was written by Louisa May Alcott and is loosely based on Alcott's own childhood. It follows a year in the life of four daughters living in Concord, Mass. -- Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy -- while their minister father is away fighting in the Civil War.
Brooks first read the book as a girl growing up in Sydney, Australia.
"I didn't know it was an American novel," Brooks said in a phone interview from her home in Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. "I thought this is just another bunch of girls in long, starched dresses. It was only really much later that I realized that it was one of the very first novels to deal with the Civil War."
Brooks didn't know it at the time, but she would grow up to write her own Civil War story, with the help of the Alcott family and some firsthand experience as a journalist covering war-ravaged regions of the world.
Coming to Utah
In the year marking the Civil War sesquicentennial, Brooks will discuss "March" as the featured speaker at the Ogden School Foundation's Fall Author Event on Thursday at Ogden's Eccles Conference Center.
"I'm really looking forward to getting out there and engaging with the audience," Brooks said. "I hope people have lots of questions."
After working as a journalist in Bosnia, Somalia and Nigeria, and as Middle East bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, Brooks and her husband, Tony Horwitz, also a journalist and writer, moved to Virginia in the mid-1990s, where they began raising their family.
Brooks soon realized her husband's interest in Civil War history bordered on "complete fanaticism," and it would be good for their marriage if she could "find a way to connect with this subject or just be bored to death."
"The South has a saying that the Civil War war was fought in 10,000 places and it soon became depressingly clear to me that Tony intended that we should visit every single one of them," Brooks said, with a playful, girlish laugh.
As Brooks began connecting with the period, she began wondering what happens when an idealist goes to war.
"The Civil War is a very interesting conflict to explore that, because so many idealists and abolitionists enlisted to fight the scourge of slavery," Brooks said.
At the time, Brooks and her family were living in a Virginia town settled by Quakers, who are famous for not only their pacifism but also their abolitionist activities during the war. Some Quakers took up arms and fought in the war.
"They thought the evil of slavery was worse than the evil of violence, and I wondered what happened to them when they went to war," Brooks said. "I have seen -- depressingly so -- that in every conflict, dreadful things and atrocities are done on all sides, and certainly the Civil War was no different. So I wondered what happened to these young men as their ideals were tested by the barbarities of conflict."
That led Brooks back to "Little Women," where she rediscovered Mr. March, a character who could help her answer that question.
"He is really the absent dad ... and the void of him is what is important in 'Little Women' because it's in his absence that the girls have more agency and more necessity and freedom to find themselves in the world," Brooks said. "He is gone from the first page and they are missing him."
As it was originally published, "Little Women" ends with a homecoming -- Mr. March returns and tells his girls how they have changed while he has been away.
"But how a year of war has changed him, nothing is said," Brooks said. "So that's the wonderful void in which I had to do my exploration of what kind of war an idealist like Mr. March might have had for himself out there."
Since Alcott's novel was semi-autobiographical, Brooks researched Alcott's father, Amos Bronson Alcott, as a template upon which to build her Victorian idealist, Mr. March. What she found stunned, delighted and inspired her.
"I'm really embarrassed that I didn't know who Bronson Alcott was before, because he is such a fascinating figure," Brooks said.
Unlike the saintly March family presented in "Little Women," Alcott and his family were on the forefront when it came to progressive issues of the day, such as abolition and women's rights. A teacher, writer and philosopher, Alcott was a proponent of animal rights and advocated a vegan diet long before that movement became mainstream.
"March" is written in the voice of its male protagonist, and Brooks read Alcott's journals, which he kept nearly his entire life, to help her find that voice. And even though Bronson Alcott never actually went to war, Brooks said, Louisa Alcott served as a nurse during the war and wrote a "wonderfully vivid" account of that experience, which helped Brooks add authenticity, texture and depth to her story.
Brooks reinvented Mr. March as a Yankee chaplain whose idealism and quest for perfection is battered by the brutality of the Civil War. In letters home, March withholds from his "little women" the true nature of the ugliness around him, but his relationship with his wife is sorely tested.
" 'March' is a beautifully wrought story about how war dashes ideals, unhinges moral certainties and drives a wedge of bitter experience and unspeakable memories between husband and wife," the Los Angeles Times stated in its review of the book.
Brooks' own words beautifully demonstrate March's despair as he narrates the story.
"No wonder simple men have always had their gods dwell in the high places. For as soon as a man lets his eye drop from the heavens to the horizon, he risks setting it on some scene of desolation," Mr. March says in the book.
Lessons from history
Do we learn from the mistakes of history? As a historical novelist with an impressive journalistic background, Brooks doesn't think so. That medieval mind-set of rape, pillage and plunder too often raises its head.
"We make these beautiful, multicultural societies and that's when the science and arts takes these great leaps forward, and then we always allow these ideologies to rise up and smash that apart, and then we have to start and rebuild it all over again," she said. "It seems like it is some sort of glitch in our genetic code -- this williness to let demagogues make us demonize each other .... 'That's different from me, therefore it's contemptible.' "
Brooks' work as a journalist -- an individual recording modern history as it unfolds -- primed her to examine and re-imagine historical events such as the Great Plague in Europe and the life of American Indians in a world before their lands were stolen and many were butchered.
Brooks enjoys writing with past events as a backdrop because "you know something, but you can't know everything, and there is room for imagination to work."
Both "Caleb's Crossing" (published this year) and "Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague" (2002) take place in the 17th century. Brooks loves writing about the particular period "because it's the period when you can see the modern mind emerging from the medieval mind and people start to think in ways that are very recognizable to us. But the old superstitions are dragging at their heels, so it's different and similar in ways that are very intriguing to me."
Puritan family values
Puritans play a big part in Brook's newest novel, "Caleb's Crossing," a story she first came across when her family moved to Martha's Vineyard and she was exploring the area. Brooks said she came across a plaque dedicated to Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, the first American Indian graduate of Harvard College.
"And I think, 'Cool, I wonder if I'll run into him at the local library, because I was thinking it would have been about 1965 when a person like that might have breached the walls and bastions of white Waspian privilege."
To her amazement, Caleb graduated from Harvard College in 1665, said Brooks, noting she did not even know the college existed in 1665. She began her research and discovered a lot about the Puritans in the process. For example, they were not as sexually repressive as some imagine.
"They were quite pro human sexuality and saw it as real gift from God, within the sanction of marriage and so forth," Brooks said. "A huge number of Puritan woman went to the altar pregnant ... It was accepted that young people would get it on, provided they ended up married if a child was conceived. That was perfectly within the structure of the time."
They also put a great emphasis on education, the establishment of Harvard as a prime example of their dedication to a liberal arts education that embraced philosophies, sciences and arts of the pagan Greek and Roman empires.
"They didn't have any scruples about studying all kinds of different thought, even though they had their own rigorous religious beliefs," she said.
Unfortunately, when it came to the main character in her story, the historical record about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck was rather scant. She did what research she could and then dived into another void -- a place where Geraldine Brooks is quite comfortable and amazingly adept.
"We just don't know what it was like to be him," she said. "We just have the bare facts of his life, so there was a void where only imagination could fill."
WHO: Geraldine Brooks
WHAT: Ogden School Foundation’s Fall Author Event 2011
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (5:30 p.m. social and book sale, 6:30 p.m. dinner)
WHERE: Eccles Conference Center, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden
TICKETS: $70, $90 and $120. Tables of 10 available for $700, $900 and $1,200. Call 801-737-7305 or send check to Ogden School Foundation, 1950 Monroe Blvd., Ogden, UT 84401