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Geraldine Brooks


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “The Secret Chord” A Novel by Geraldine Brooks

December 4, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 8.42.39 AMHandel’s Coronation Anthems begin with the words “Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet, anointed Solomon King” and well might the people have rejoiced. Solomon succeeded King David, described in Geraldine Brooks’ retelling of his story “The Secret Chord” as the difficult, tempestuous, musical, brave killer of Goliath and later King of the Israelite tribes. Brooks drew on the Bible and numerous other sources to develop her version of this Biblical figure. One of her many interesting choices is to tell the story from the point of view of Nathan, who served David as prophet and advisor since Nathan’s childhood.

Readers will know the outlines – David, a shepherd bringing food to his brothers fighting with King Saul’s army against the Philistines, killed Goliath, the giant champion of the Philistines. Saul brings David into his household, and David and Saul’s son Jonathan form a deep, and in Brooks’ version most likely sexual, friendship. Eventually David rebels against Saul, defeats his army, and succeeds him. (One of the saddest and most beautiful pieces of music is Charpentier’s opera “David et Jonathas”; you can listen to Les Arts Florissants’ beautiful staging of the scene where David learns of Jonathan’s death here.) David takes several women as wives, who give birth to several sons, including Amnon and Absalom, and a daughter, Tamar. He upends his life when he spies the beautiful wife of one of his generals, Batsheva. She gives birth, eventually, to the son who grows up to be King Solomon, but David and his other children (and wives) pay an enormous price (Batsheva’s first-born son dies; Amnon rapes and disfigures Tama; Absalom kills Amnon and ultimately dies a gruesome death).

Brooks takes a clear-eyed view of David. The good, of which there was much, was very good: David united the tribes, took a deep and abiding interest in his people, exercised good judgment when he decided disputes. But the bad was very bad: over and over, Nathan tells us, David, or his henchmen, does whatever is necessary to wrest power from his adversaries, and to secure it. This generally means killing, and more killing, often of women, old men, and children as much as the men of the armies. Nathan retires as much as possible from his court, undertaking, among other tasks, to tutor and protect Solomon.

Brooks has chosen well in making Nathan the narrator. He cannot, he says, control or predict the visions he is sent by God, but he can remember and interpret them, and David trusts Nathan’s visions, as does the reader. It’s a small further step to believe Nathan’s version of events he did not or could not witness. David composed many of the psalms, and his songs, his musicianship when he plays the harp, and other music regularly illustrate David’s best qualities (the novel takes its title from the song by Leonard Cohen). Brooks is at her best in describing the smaller spaces — villages, palaces, tents and houses and the events within them are all deeply vivid, as are the minds and, occasionally, the dress of her characters. The larger movements, of individuals and especially of the armies that sweep through, are hard to follow, and the maps that cover the endpapers are not detailed enough to help.

Using such an old story, one that has been told and adapted by countless artists whose works have their own resonance for each reader, is a risk, one that Brooks has met and overcome. “The Secret Chord” is an engaging and interesting take on a historical figure whose acts and life are the stuff of myth. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks

December 21, 2012

In about 1641 the Mayfields and a few other families left the proscriptive Massachusetts Bay Colony near Boston and, seeking slightly more freedom, settled on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where they lived near but not really among the Native American residents. In 1665 Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Native American from Martha’s Vineyard, became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Shortly after completing his studies, he died. Geraldine Brooks has hung her lovely and elegiac novel “Caleb’s Crossing” from this very simple skeleton.

Bethia Mayfield, the (imaginary) daughter of the founding family, tells the story. In addition to Caleb, other characters include the Mayfield parents, Bethia’s siblings, and their English neighbors. There are Native Americans who have become Christian converts, and there are other natives who want nothing to do with the settlers – and who treat those who have converted as outcasts.

As is always true of Geraldine Brooks, the book is beautifully written, consistently evoking that small island. But the language is carefully chosen to place the reader in the 17th century, while refraining from dialect or becoming too unfamiliar to the modern reader. Here’s Bethia, explaining how she learns her which herbs and mosses can cure:

I do not mean to say that all my stolen hours were spent at book. I learned in other ways, also. I . . . began to ask Goody Branch and others who were wise in such things. There was a prodigious amount to know, not just the centuries-old lore of familiar English herbs, but the uses just now being found out for the new country’s unfamiliar roots and leaves.

As she explores the island, going farther than perhaps her parents expect or would allow, Bethia meets and befriends Caleb (who of course is not yet called Caleb). She learns Native lore from him, as well as good fishing spots; he learns English from her. They communicate, despite the differences. One thing stymies Bethia – the names the Native Americans use for each other. They are changeable. Caleb explains:

Names, he said, flow into one like a drink of cool water, remain for a year or a season, and then, maybe, give way to another, more apt one.

Telling the story from the point of view of a woman, and a young one, the sensitivity to the Native American lore and culture, and the general open-mindedness on display among many of the Martha’s Vineyard settlers suggests that Brooks is telling a 21st century story cloaked in historical language. The relationships that develop between settler and Native Americans, and the events that unfold generally pulled this reader deep into the 17th century.

Caleb, of course, isn’t the only person to have made the crossing: from Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland, from English to Native culture. You know what happened to the Native Americans. This book is a good reminder of how enriched we can be by what came before. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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I’ll see you in the new year – Happy Holidays!

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