Monday, November 28, 2011

Book review: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

My review of Caleb's Crossing was published in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on August 6th.  For some reason it was never posted online, so I have no link to the original, but this is the version as it appeared in print. (The headline was their choice, and I like it.)

Moving Heathen and Earth in New England

The title of Caleb's Crossing refers to two related happenings: a young Wampanoag man's journey to the Massachusetts mainland from his home on Martha's Vineyard, and his gradual assumption of English ways. His story is filtered through the narration of Bethia Mayfield, a minister's daughter.

The two meet by chance when she is 12. Her friendship with the youth she calls Caleb blossoms as they talk about their daily lives and religious beliefs - all of which Bethia hides from her father and brother.

Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks (March, in 2005) situates her riveting tale of cross-cultural exploration in Puritan America on a few slim facts. In 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. His letter to his English benefactors, reproduced on the novel's endpapers, is especially remarkable; it was written in Latin.

"Listening, not speaking, has been my way," writes Bethia, a perceptive and careful chronicler of their lives, an intellectual in a society that believes women are capable of domestic duty and not much else. She also has a shameful secret. She finds Caleb's heathen faith too appealing for her own good. Although she repents, she is Puritan enough to think she's damned, having caused her mother's death with her desire for "forbidden fruit."

When Bethia's father discovers the extent of Caleb's knowledge, he decides to instruct him further in the Gospel and the classics, as any good Calvinist missionary would. Caleb sees a way of improving his people's lot and comes to live with the Mayfields, which leads to a spiritual battle of sorts between Mayfield and Caleb's uncle, the pawaaw (religious leader) of the Wampanoag.

Caleb's and Bethia's paths take them from Martha's Vineyard to Cambridge. Both sets of surroundings are superbly evoked through Bethia's admittedly biased viewpoint. The island is an isolated haven of sun-dappled beaches and swirling mists, a paradise on Earth despite the tenuousness of life there. In contrast, she finds Cambridge an "unlovely town" that reeks of animals and too many people, and whose closely constructed houses don't let her spirit breathe. What is the purpose of progress, she wonders, if you have to leave your true self behind?

Bethia's account has an early American formality, with just enough period syntax to feel authentic (and enough old-fashioned usage of "loose," instead of "lose," to drive a copy editor mad). Terms like "friggling" and "cackhanded" aren't exactly everyday lingo, but the prose falls on the ear in a natural way.

As always, Brooks treads the dividing line between literary and popular fiction with confidence. Her work is strongly plotted, full of twists and surprises: life-changing disappointments, sudden opportunities, unexpected crossroads. The language is as fresh and crisp as the salt-tinged air, and her characters are, for the most part, ripened to their fullest potential. The one exception is Caleb himself. We get to know his personality and mettle, but he is kept at a distance. There are times - fortunately rare - when he reads more as symbol than flesh and blood.

In fact, the novel is much more Bethia's than his. She is one of Brooks's most rounded creations; her character, unlike Caleb's, is completely fictional. Bethia is no feisty anachronism but a woman of her era, and her yearning to achieve more than society grants her is achingly real.

Higher education has changed over time; students aren't expected to converse in Latin, and they can't pay for their tuition with sacks of grain. Still, the intellectual craving expressed by these 17th-century characters comes through clearly to our modern mindsets. This is a brilliantly composed novel full of wit, spiritual contemplation and the deep love of learning. At the same time, Caleb's Crossing makes us feel the full impact of what these people went through to bring their dreams to fruition.


Caleb's Crossing was published by Viking in May at $26.95 in the US, or $31.00 in Canada (hardcover, 301pp).


  1. I always enjoy your reviews so much and this one no less, especially since I have already read Caleb's Crossing.

    And I also thought that Bethia was a well developed character, Caleb no so much.

    Thanks for this insightful review.

  2. Enjoyed your review. I thought it was too bad that Brooks really made it Bethiah's story rather than concentrating on Caleb. Even though her writing is always beautifully done, her focus in this seemed a bit off to me.

  3. The focus on Bethia surprised me, although I wasn't disappointed by it in the end. While the title was a bit misleading, it may've helped the book find a larger audience.

    In the author's note, Brooks mentioned the issues with getting into the mindset of a 17th-c Native American character, which I can understand, so I can appreciate the distance she left between us and him.

  4. Lovely review, Sarah. I read People of the Book a couple of years ago, but haven't tried any of Brooks' other works. Perhaps I should give this one a try.

  5. I have only read the one book by Geraldine Brooks, but it was a while ago. One day I will read more by her...

  6. Caleb's Crossing is my favorite novel of hers. I'm somewhat biased because colonial New England is probably my favorite setting, too. People of the Book was also excellent, and I enjoyed Year of Wonders also, with the exception of the ending.

  7. Anonymous4:16 PM

    I haven't read this one yet. Hugh Nissenson's PILGRIM is just out, covering some of the same period.

    I have some peeps who came over in 1633 so I have become very interested in this time and place.

    Sarah Other Librarian

  8. Anonymous9:12 AM

    Why in the world did the book not include a transcription of the letter? I could not read the reproduction on the endpapers although my latin is still good enough from the 6 years I took in secondary school,

  9. This book sounded so intriguing to me, but I guess I'll have to give it a miss. For one, when an author gives an excuse to the difficulty of getting into the mindset of a 17th-century Native American, then why did she write a book about one? A little extra research is all it takes.

  10. Unfortunately the full author's note isn't online. Google Books only gives the end of it. I didn't read it as an excuse but an explanation, and it dealt with not just the difference in mindset but the fact that Caleb was a historical figure who's still very well remembered by the Wampanoag. Some authors prefer to write from the first-person viewpoint of fictional characters. Your mileage may vary, and I won't try to convince you to read it :) but it seemed like a fair authorial decision to me.

  11. I should have said a lot of extra research, not a little. I read the Author's note on Google and became intrigued again, especially when she said she went to the Wampanoag. Unfortunately, the Amazon reviews swayed me back the other way. I fully understand first person, but that's not a reason to distance other characters. Oh well, it was a good premise, and btw, I chose not to use the word "salvage" because I thought too many readers would think it's a typo. :-)

  12. I didn't have a problem with "salvage" in the book, but I didn't use it in the review because it's too hard to explain with the limited word count I had. I can't imagine copy editing this book, though. Whoever had that job must have gotten quite a workout.

  13. I love the way this author pulls out a small historical note and generates an entire story incorporating available facts from the historical record. So interesting.

  14. I was disappointed in this book. It seemed more a history lesson with clunky attempts at a story and characterisation. Neither Bethia nor Caleb was a developed character. The emphasis on religious superstition left me cold.