Paper Trail

updated 04/06/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN THE SPRING OF 1993, GERALDINE Brooks was home in Sydney visiting her dying father—and at a crossroads in her life. For six years, Brooks, a celebrated correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, had been witness to great and grisly events: the Gulf War, famine in Africa, riots on the West Bank. But she was beginning to feel, she says, like someone on "the frequent flyer plan from Hell." Then, one afternoon in her parents' basement, she came across a dusty bundle of letters. They were written by her childhood pen pals, and she knew right away she had to track them down. "I wondered what happened to them," says Brooks, 42. "I also wanted to get in touch with the young girl I'd been—the one who'd dreamed of faraway places."

Now, five years later, Brooks has published Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Over (Anchor). Equal parts memoir and travel book, it portrays the author as a shy, sheltered Sydney girl who, at age 10, started writing to four kids in exotic corners of the world and to one in her own hometown. It also chronicles Brooks's "human treasure hunt"—her search through settings as diverse as Arab souks and Manhattan nightclubs to find the men and women who had once fed her dreams. "Their letters formed a kind of road map of my life," she says.

She already knew the fate of Joannie, from Maplewood, N.J., whom she had found through a Star Trek fan magazine and had written as often as once a week between 1968 and 1982. They were Trekkers together, sorted out Vietnam together, shared first feelings about boys. Then, for nine years, Joannie shared her struggles with anorexia nervosa, which killed her in 1982 at age 27. Joannie died before Brooks, who came to New York City for graduate school in journalism, was able to meet her. "It was devastating," says Brooks. "I had always thought how I was living the life she should have lived." In 1993, Brooks traveled to New Jersey to visit Joannie's mother, Elizabeth, which proved cathartic for both of them. "Now," says Brooks, "it's Joannie's mother and I who write each other."

Two years later, Brooks flew to Israel to find her old Israeli pen pals Mishal and Cohen. As an adolescent, Brooks, who wore a star of David to her classes at a Catholic girls school, became fascinated by Israel during the 1967 Yom Kippur War and dearly wanted to write to an Israeli Jew. But the pen-pal service first put her in touch with Mishal, a Christian Arab. Then she found Cohen, who was Jewish but, to Brooks's dismay, was crazy about sports. "He seemed just like all the boys in the neighborhood I wouldn't talk to," she says. Brooks located the adult Mishal in Nazareth, where he is a carpenter, and Cohen north of Tel Aviv, where he is now a bank clerk, cherishing family life after prolonged military service he'd grown to hate.

A few months later, Brooks flew to France and drove to a remote village in Provence to find Janine, who at 40 had three children but had still never been to Paris. "As my world expanded," says Brooks, "hers contracted." Finally, in Manhattan, she caught up with Nell Campbell, owner of the ultra-hip Nell's nightclub and an actress, currently in Great Expectations. Campbell, who also grew up in Sydney, had been Brooks's first pen pal. Brooks found her to be much the old Nell, "so full of life." For her part, Campbell marveled that Brooks was a renowned war reporter. "She was soft-voiced and feminine," says Campbell. "I thought, 'The male journalists must have loved her!' "

At least one still does. These days, Brooks lives in Waterford, Va., with her husband of 13 years and onetime Journal colleague Tony Horwitz, 39, and their nearly 2-year-old son, Nathaniel. Brooks and Horwitz are both permanently home from the wars, tapping out their books in separate offices in their colonial cottage. "Even constant excitement can become dull after a while," says Brooks. Indeed, Brooks, who once ran on adrenaline, finds herself thinking about quiet more and more. Aware that she has come full circle, Brooks says, "Here we live for our mail. It's lovely, isn't it?"

KATE MCKENNA in Waterford

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