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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Since I enjoyed the book The Heretic's Daughter, I thought there was a good chance I'd like this one too.  And I did. This was a great summer read for me; it really took me out of my element and to another place and time. The setting is the island of Martha's Vineyard in the 1600's. White settlers had arrived in 1641, and, while conning Native Americans out of lands, were hacking homes out of the wilderness, trampling on the clam beds, burning the forests, and infesting the native Wampanoag Tribe with deadly diseases, all in the name of God.   Although the book is called Caleb's Crossing, Bethia (beth-eye-ah) is our narrator; a comely 16-year-old girl, and this re-telling is from her journal.  The author, Geraldine Brooks, went to live on Martha's Vineyard in 2006, and became evermore fascinated by the Native-American and Early-American history.  This is her fictionalized account of Caleb, the first Native American to ever graduate from Harvard (in 1665), as seen through the eyes of a Puritan girl.  Bethia has a brilliant mind, especially in contrast with her brother, Makepeace, who obviously has some sort of learning disability.  Makepeace takes his frustration out on his sister, and she must endure it.  For me, Bethia in this book is a symbol of how women were made to kneel under the oppressive thumb of Puritan male society.  We feel it especially keenly because Bethia is so smart and kind and open.  There's a bit of The Scarlet Letter in this book (literally), although we can hold out more hope for Bethia than we ever could for poor Hester Prynne.  As for the pure and handsome Caleb, he was a real person.  In this book, he strives to save his people by adapting to the Puritan culture.  As Bethia eavesdrops in on Harvard lectures from an open vent while working in the buttery, her thirst for knowledge only grows.  She spends a good deal of her young life coveting the education that is wasted on her brother.  And she absorbs the complicated Wampanoag dialect through her great friendship with Caleb.  She must often pretend she doesn't understand what's going on, and when she does speak her mind, she is made to regret it.  Her frustration is palpable.  So great is her quest for understanding all things that at one point, she covertly drinks an hallucinogenic potion while visiting a local Tribe with her evangelical father.  Any female, young or old, can get a glimpse of what it would be like to endure the harsh living conditions and societal mores of the Puritan culture, but this is perhaps not the most important part of this book.  It's the love that Bethia feels for those around her, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them, while still managing to keep her faith.  I don't want to put too much detail here because I read this book knowing hardly anything about it, and that's part of the fun.  Like Bethia, we can step onto the liberating path toward the beach, and find something unknown and wonderful, including friendship and love.  I have adored other books of Geraldine Brooks', including Year of Wonders, and her brilliant non-fiction book Nine Parts of Desire.  With all her novels that feature American history, I was surprised to learn that Geraldine Brooks is from Australia.  She won the Pulitzer for her book March, which is about the American Civil War as seen from inside "Little Women."  I'll end by saying that I've possibly made Caleb's Crossing out to be too dark, and it's really not.  It's moody, Puritanical feel was appropriate, and it was a fun read and I would even recommend it as a Young Adult novel, especially for girls.   There is a bit of romance in this book, but in today's world, it's very chastely done.  Thumbs up.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

If Erik Larson never wrote another book, it wouldn't matter, because The Devil In The White City is so damn good.  This is  not only a page-turner/murder mystery, it's also a non-fiction, historical account of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  And, it reads like fiction.  The first time I read this book, it started out slow for me.  Not so this time, perhaps because I already knew it was going to get better as it went along.   Larson brings an entire era to life here, and this Gilded Age was packed with new inventions and discoveries.  This book will place you in the forefront of American Architecture and also Landscape Architecture.  Eiffel had created his famous Tower and the pressure was on for the Chicago World's Fair to compete with his graceful monument.  If all this isn't enough for you, there's a chilling thread of heinous crime that runs through this book like a dark river, perpetrated by a serial killer who's every bit as charming and deadly as Ted Bundy.  You'll wonder why you've never heard of this person, who's right up there with his contemporary, Jack the Ripper.  And I loved the detective who plodded along and doggedly closed in on the murderer, without the benefits of modern technology.  This Fair was a junction where all kinds of famous people came and went, everyone from Susan B. Anthony to Buffalo Bill.  And in with all the calamity are the inventions that were introduced at this fair.  Think peanut butter and Cracker Jacks, the Ferris wheel and electric boats.  Entire tribes of people were brought over for this fair, from the Middle East and Africa.  Union standards were changed forever, and so were the many laborers who toiled (and sometimes died) for two years to make this grandiose vision a reality.  You'll be up in the swank offices of the elite in the world's first skyscrapers, and down at the gates of Hell in the infamous meatpacking stockyards.  The Chicago World's Fair, also known as The World's Columbian Expedition occurred just 13 years prior to the publishing of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."  Chicago was a paradox; an epicenter of wealth and developing culture fueled by an abattoir.  And the "White City" created by the fair was so beautiful that some fainted upon seeing it.  This spectacle brought work and excitement to the city, and also many young women looking for employment and lodging.  With all the city embroiled in the affairs of The Fair, the killer found the crowds and bustle the perfect distracting environment for his activities.  Reading this book was not only a very entertaining history lesson, but also just a good read!