Geraldine Brooks very nearly missed the inspiration for her latest novel, this month's feature book Caleb's Crossing.
The Australian-born writer was poring over a map of significant sites on the island of Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Cape Cod, when she saw a reference to the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.
Glancing at the map, Brooks read Caleb Cheeshahteaumark's graduation as 1965 and wondered if he was still alive. But a closer look at the date showed that it actually read 1665, a full 300 years earlier.
That snippet of fact set the mind of the historical novelist whirling. How did this young man from the Native American Wampanoag community end up studying at Harvard? What was Harvard like in the 1600s? What became of Caleb after graduation?
I was intrigued by these same questions when I first read about the novel. But because Brooks uncovered very few facts about Caleb's life in her research, I knew not to expect they would be answered in Caleb's Crossing.
For Brooks, this lack of a factual matrix was a bonus. "What's a catastrophe for a narrative historian, is a feast for a novelist," she told the Wall Street Journal. "When the facts run out, that's when you can allow yourself to hear the voices in your imagination."
So Brooks created an imagined interpretation of events, told by Bethia, the 12-year-old daughter of a Puritan minister, and friend to Caleb. They meet during Bethia's secret rambles around the island and soon share their love of knowledge. Meanwhile Bethia's father is trying to convert the local Wampanoag community, and adopts Caleb's education as his pet project.
My first encounter with Brooks' work was her debut novel Year of Wonders, the story of Anna, a young maid in a Derbyshire village that opts to go into quarantine to ride out the bubonic plague. Year of Wonders was a firm favourite among my book club at the time, not only for Brooks' graceful pen, but also for her way of making us look at history in a different and very human light.
So I'm looking forward to reading Brooks' take on Caleb's story, even more so because many of the reviews have been very favourable. Writing in the Listener, Jolisa Gracewood described Caleb's Crossing as "immersive and powerful, a fresh and beautiful picture of early America. This is a sad, classic tale, told with persuasive charm ... a fully conjured vision of a lost world."
There's still a few days to enter our competition to win a copy of Caleb's Crossing and our other August feature book, Bronwyn's choice There But For The by Ali Smith. Click here by submitting a question for Ali Smith or Geraldine Brooks by 11am this Friday, August 5.