Friday, June 21, 2013

Book 65: Caleb's Crossing

A Year of Wonders blew me away, and I also loved People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.  Despite this, I haven't actually read her award winning novel March because I feel like I should read Little Women first.  Caleb's Crossing is another piece of historical fiction inspired by true events, like her previous novels (the Civil War a true event, even if the March family was fictional).  The narrator, Bethia, is completely made up by Brooks, but there actually was a Native American man named Caleb who graduated from Harvard in the mid to late 17th century.
Bethia is the minister's daughter on the island that is now known as Martha's Vineyard, living with her father who is intent on building relationships between the new white settlers and the island's Native American population, her older brother who wants to follow in his father's foot steps, and a much younger sister.  The novel begins as Bethia finds out that her father plans to have Caleb move in with them and tutor him in order to make him a bridge between the two communities as well as help with converting the local populace.  Little does her father know that Bethia and Caleb have been friends for years despite conventions of the time that restrict their interactions based on both gender, and ethnic and cultural differences.
As can be expected from Brooks, she obviously spent a lot of time researching this novel, and did a great job of capturing the attitudes of the time.  It took me a few chapters to warm up to Bethia for this exact reason as she discussed her guilt and punishment for what she saw as her weakness and giving into Satan's temptation, if only temporarily.  There is very little tolerance for the Native American gods and cultural traditions, all of these being seen as signs of the devil.  While Bethia may be more open minded than the average settler, she too judges certain actions.  Brooks does a good job of straddling the line between not making Bethia too modern a character and making her so much a product of her time that a modern reader can't like her.  She also makes sure to use Bethia's contemporaries to show that while she may not be normal, she is certainly not out of the ordinary: Bethia has a great desire to learn, and is partially inspired by Anne Bradstreet, a fellow Puritan woman, and America's first published poet.
Though the novel is called Caleb's Crossing, the main character is without a doubt Bethia.  We get Bethia's perspective on Caleb's life, his crossing between white and Native American worlds, and the struggles and racism he faces.  Just as much, the novel focuses on a hardships of being a woman in this time period, the lack of opportunities and huge amounts of work necessary to run a household and farm in 17th century colonial Massachusetts.  One thing I quite enjoyed is that at no point does Brooks try to turn this into a romance (well, maybe a little when discussing Bethia's options): Bethia and Caleb are childhood friends, and view each other almost as siblings.  Both of them face restrictions and doubts about their intelligence from society, one for gender, one for race, and in this way, the novel nicely parallels the differing prejudices the two face and different ways they can attempt to overcome them, or must live within them.
Having said all that, I didn't enjoy this one as much as her other novels, and part of this may well be that it took me a bit longer to build a connection with Bethia, who overall was a realistic character.  Once I was into the novel, I was definitely as invested as with all her other ones, but it was a bit of a slower start for me.  I still enjoyed it quite a bit, and found the afterword where Brooks explains the actual historical circumstances illuminating as well.

1 comment:

JaneGS said...

Brooks definitely does choose interesting topics for her books, although I generally end up having mixed feelings about them.

My kids read this book last year for summer reading in high school, and so I have it and intend to read it. I love the premise.

March was good, and you might actually enjoy it more if you don't read Little Women first. Knowing LW is not a requirement for "getting" the book, although you might find it interesting to read up on Louisa May Alcott as Mr. March is based pretty closely on Alcott's real father...more so, in my opinion, than on the fictional March.