Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks has just finished writing a new novel, inspired by the story of a racehorse during the 1850s and ’60s.
It is the first of her novels in which religion is not a dominant theme, which made it the hardest to write, because religion is “often where people go to discuss the big questions of life and death and meaning,” she says. “People who were involved in racing tended to be a godless lot, apparently.”
Usually, “when you write about the past, religion is almost unavoidable,” says Brooks, who will be the guest speaker for the Brandeis National Committee Tucson Chapter’s 25th annual Book & Author event, to be held via Zoom on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 11 a.m.
“The first historical story that captured my imagination was ‘Year of Wonders,’” which is based on events in an English village during the bubonic plague, says Brooks. “The historical record shows that the villagers were led to the decision to take the unique step of voluntarily quarantining themselves by a young minister, which leads you into all the religious controversies of the mid-17th century in England.”
Brooks, also a journalist, followed “Year of Wonders” with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “March,” a novel focusing on the mostly absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” an abolitionist minister during the Civil War.
At a book talk for March, an audience member asked, “Why do all your novels have vicars in them?” Brooks, who was working on “People of the Book,” about the Sarajevo Haggadah and its preservation over centuries by various people, had to laugh to herself, thinking, “I’ll see your two vicars and raise you a rabbi, a priest, and a Muslim.”
Brooks’ fourth novel, “Caleb’s Crossing,” returns to the time and the Calvinist mindset of “Year of Wonders,” but set in the earliest settlement in New England. “People’s lives and imaginations are so consumed with religion, so if you want to write plausibly about the time you have to understand their belief system, in all its often hair-raising dimensions,” she says.
Her most recent novel, “The Secret Chord,” tells the story of King David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him, from the prophet Natan to David’s wives to the son of his old age, Solomon.
Religion also shaped Brooks’ own life. She was brought up in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, her early years permeated by her mother and grandmother’s “fairly baroque, full blown superstitious” Irish Catholicism. She recalls great anxiety over the idea that her father, not a Catholic, was damned.
In her teens, she broke with the church “for feminist reasons, and because of the lack of any discernable interest by the church in the social justice issues around the Vietnam War,” she says.
Jewish history fascinated her, in part because her father’s abiding interest in Israel. During World War II, he had served in Mandate Palestine. A socialist by inclination, he was captivated by the kibbutz movement.
“We followed the young State of Israel pretty closely for a family that wasn’t Jewish and lived in Sydney, Australia,” she says.
When Brooks fell in love with a Jewish man, the journalist Tony Horwitz, and they planned to marry, she decided to convert. “For historical reasons, I wasn’t going to be the end of the line for another Jewish family. It was my small rejection of what Hitler had tried to accomplish,” she says. Brooks and Horwitz, who died suddenly in 2019, have two sons.
For the silver anniversary of its Book & Author series, BNC is departing from its usual multi-author format, with Brooks as the sole speaker. The discussion will be moderated by BNC member Ellen Saltonstall.
All proceeds from the Book & Author events benefit “Sustaining the Mind,” a Brandeis National Committee fund supporting Brandeis University’s research into the causes of degenerative neurological diseases such as ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Fully tax-deductible donations start at $50. To register, call Soralé Fortman at (520) 390-7358.