Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2011

It's about: In the seventeenth century, on the island now known as Martha's Vineyard, a girl named Bethia Mayfield struggles to amend her natural intelligence with the subservience imposed on her by the Puritan society in which she lives. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Caleb, a boy near her own age who is a member of the Wompanoag tribe. Bethia tells his story and her own in this first-person historical narrative. Caleb's Crossing is very loosely based on what little is known about the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American graduate of Harvard College.

I thought: It was hard for me to adjust to Caleb's Crossing after being so smitten with The Instructions. Bethia's more emotional storytelling seemed unnecessarily florid after the adolescent minimalism of Gurion Maccabee's voice. But about fifty pages in, as the story picked up, I settled in and enjoyed it from there on out.

This is truly excellent historical fiction. It's packed full of information about Puritan life: the dogma and style of worship and how it related to everyday events; the pitiable fate of women; the harsh realities of a Christian Fundamentalist Society where Puritanism is law. There's also the Native/English relations and some information about Wompanoag life, religion, and language. Reading Caleb's Crossing is like spending a few hours touring a Puritan homestead that has been preserved and made into a museum.

But the information and detail are easy to read and absorb, thanks to Bethia's eventful life and her convincing, likeable voice. Geraldine Brooks uses period-accurate words like "chirurgeon" for "surgeon", and "murther" for "murder", but not to the extent that the language distances the modern reader. She also highlights the disappointingly narrow opportunities given to Puritan women, without turning the novel in to some sensational tirade. I frequently found myself angered and frustrated as Bethia suffered multiple injustices at the hands of men, and Bethia responds to them in a manner appropriate to the period and the way she was raised. I also appreciated that Bethia was a believing Christian throughout, and yet not a zealot or a mindless robot. She thought for herself, doubted, and maintained her faith.

Caleb's and his people's unfair treatment was also expressed well and with restraint. The reader sees injustices and naturally sympathizes with Caleb and the other Native Americans. Ms. Brooks doesn't get carried away with the issues here. The characters, period, and story come first, and the civil rights offenses rise from them so that I never got the feeling that an agenda had been forced into the text. (This was the topic of our most recent Literary Blog Hop, in case you missed it.)

Verdict: Definitely on the shelf. This is a model of historical fiction. I'd love to read more by Geraldine Brooks.

Reading Recommendations: If you're interested in this author, check out Ingrid's review of her Pulitzer Prize winner, March.

Warnings: none

Favorite excerpts: "God is pleased to dispense himself variously. But while I fill up my mouth with prayers, they bring no comfort. My words rattle against each other like the last beech leaves on a winter branch, and though a hard wind scours the forest, it cannot free them from the bough; it will not lift them upward into the wide white sky."

What I'm reading next: Celebrity Chekhov, adapted and celebritized by Ben Greenman