Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Geraldine Brooks

I just read a review by Cliff Reed of Geraldine Brooks' novel March in The Inquirer, which made me want to go and buy it. Having looked at her other books, I also bought Year of Wonders (which is about the plague year in Eyam in Derbyshire) and People of the Book (which is about a book restorer who restores and investigates the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah).

March is a novel about the father of the March girls in Little Women, and is based on the life of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott's father. I like novels which throw a sidelight on other novels (Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea being another excellent example), so this should be an excellent read.
From Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has taken the character of the absent father, March, who has gone off to war leaving his wife and daughters. To evoke him, Brooks turned to the journals and letters of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, a friend and confidant of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

In Brooks’ telling, March emerges as an idealistic chaplain in the little known backwaters of a war that will test his faith in himself and in the Union cause as he learns that his side, too, is capable of acts of barbarism and racism. As he recovers from a near mortal illness, he must reassemble his shattered mind and body, and find a way to reconnect with a wife and daughters who have no idea of the ordeals he has been through.
Year of Wonders should be of interest to British Unitarians, as the village of Eyam is only just up the road from Great Hucklow, the Unitarian conference and holiday centre. The story of Eyam is incredibly moving; I first heard of it at school when I was 10 or 11, and it made a big impression on me; but this summer was the first opportunity I had had to visit Eyam itself, and witness the scene of the amazing self-sacrifice of its people, who quarantined themselves to protect the rest of Derbyshire from the plague.

People of the Book is a fictionalised account of the remarkable preservation of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The real story of this book is amazing, too:
The history of the remarkable man, Dervis Korkut, who saved the book from the Nazi officers who sought it, was told in the December 3, 2007 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The article, entitled "The Book of Exodus", also by Geraldine Brooks, sets out the equally remarkable story of the young Jewish girl, Mira Papo, whom Korkut and his wife hid from the Nazis as they were acting to save the Haggadah. In a twist of fate, as an elderly woman in Israel, Mira Papo secured the safety of Korkut's daughter from the Serbian genocide of the 1990s.
The pictures in the Sarajevo Haggadah depict scenes from the Torah, including Jacob's ladder, Joseph's dream of the wheat and the cattle, the offering of Isaac, Noah's Ark, and many more.

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I like the sound of all those books and I too love books that, as you say, throw light on others. I am a huge fan of the four Little Women books, read and reread throughout most of my childhood. Along with E.Nesbit (my top favourite author), it was only until grown up I understood: both Nesbit and Alcott were enlightened and progressive. Is that why I loved them so? Did they subtly influence my grown-up beliefs? Or did their approach resonate with my yet unformed thoughts?

    I once read a piece on Amos Bronson Alcott in the Guardian Review. I was impressed and intrigued to discover his forward-thinking approach to teaching children. For instance, he used to ask seven-year-olds in his class about their spiritual beliefs, and record their answers.

    Clearly, seven-year-olds think deeply about the meaning of life. Instead of instructing children as if they know nothing, we would do better - as did Mr Alcott - to listen.