Reading Geraldine Brooks in 2021

March 9, 2021 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

Geraldine Brooks book coverLike many, I’m a longtime fan of the historical novels of Geraldine Brooks – Year of Wonders, March, Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord. In this extraordinary year, these novels seem newly relevant. They encompass pandemics, racial justice, leadership, Jewish continuity – all topics that resonate in 2021. Does Geraldine Brooks see her own books anew through a 2021 lens? Happily, we can ask her during her virtual visit to Beth El on Sunday, June 6, at 11 am. Register at

Year of Wonders – A Pandemic Novel

Inspired by a true story, Brooks’ first novel is set in an English village in 1665-66 during an outbreak of bubonic plague, the fearsome “Black Death.” Frightened villagers want to flee to other places. An idealistic minister persuades them to remain and quarantine as a village to prevent the disease’s spread to surrounding towns. Brooks’ descriptions of the plague village are instantly recognizable: “People go through the streets like drunkards, weaving from this side to that so as to avoid passing too close to any other pedestrian.” Fearing close contact, the minister closes the church, moving Sunday services outdoors so worshipers can appropriately space.

As in our own pandemic, the Black Death crisis sparked a range of emotions and behaviors – fear, selfishness, irrational assertions of blame, as well as courage and kindness. Depressingly, when the plague finally subsided, the survivors were too dispirited and exhausted to celebrate.

March and Caleb’s Crossing – Novels of Racial Injustice

Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for March, her Civil War novel about the mostly absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. Brooks’ novel imagines Mr. March’s wartime experience as a chaplain in the Union army. He begins as a fervent idealist, eager to embrace African Americans as his brothers and sisters, but naïve about the dangers they face, even after emancipation. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, readers may identify with March’s stumbling journey towards a fuller understanding of the toxic residue of slavery.

Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of two unlikely friends on Martha’s Vineyard in the 17th century – Bethia, a minister’s daughter, and Caleb, a member of the Wampanoag tribe. Bethia is fictional, but Caleb is a real historical figure, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Who would have guessed that Harvard’s Charter of 1650 dedicated the school to the education of both “English and Indian youth”? Sadly, it was not till 2011 that a second Wampanoag tribe member was awarded an undergraduate Harvard degree. And now, a new, cruel chapter in Native American history:  COVID-19 has so far killed Native Americans at a rate greater than any other group in the United States.

People of the Book and The Secret Chord – the “Jewish Novels”

People of the Book traces the history, real and imagined, of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated medieval masterwork. Jewish readers, after enduring two years of Zoom seders and e-haggadot, may find that this novel about a physical haggadah, wine-stained from innumerable family seders, stirs feelings of nostalgia and yearning.

The Secret Chord is a novel of King David. Following the bitter 2020 election, might this biblical story have anything to say about the enigma of charisma and leadership? The Secret Chord’s narrator, the prophet Natan, observes that a leader may inspire fierce loyalty among his followers even when his flaws are on full view.

King David’s Jerusalem is long gone. But, as one reviewer said, historical fiction lets us “glimpse into the strangeness of history” and simultaneously “see a reflection of ourselves.” This seems especially true of all of Geraldine Brooks’ novels in 2021.