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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.

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