Saturday, April 6, 2013

Review: Caleb’s Crossing
by Geraldine Brooks

I love historical fiction and I really enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing. I know I’m not alone since lots of women bought this book and we read it in our book club. But statistically romance novels were the most popular genre for women in 2004 with 55% of all books sold falling into this category.

Thank goodness we women have moved past 2004 and have expanded our reading appetites to include fantasies with fangs. I’ll bet that really messed up the stats.

I apparently belong in the minority group who still prefer historical fiction for my reading entertainment. I like to visit a time period before I was born so I can say, “Thank goodness I wasn’t born before central air and heating and outlet malls because I never would have survived.”

Caleb’s Crossing is set in 1660 before any of the comforts of home were invented. On the island now known as Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, we begin reading the story of Bethia  Mayfield and Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. Bethia is the young daughter of a Calvinist minister and Caleb is an adolescent member of the Wampanoag tribe on the island.

Caleb’s character is based on the true story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. The author admits that very little is known about Caleb or his life, but she uses missionary journals from the time to tell his story and shape the dialogue between the two cultures on the island.

Bethia is a fictional character who believes firmly in her religion but not always her “place” in the community. She craves education despite being denied the opportunity. She admires her mother and tries earnestly to go about her hearthside chores with a cheerful heart and silent lips. She doesn’t always succeed. At one point in the story, Bethia stands before the congregation to confess an improper oath uttered only in the presence of her brother. She accepts her vindictive punishment stoically but we are horrified by the injustice and cruelty.

This novel is another example of Brooks’ brilliant use of language to transport us to another time and place. She illuminates all the dark corners of the time filled with ignorance and prejudice but she also shines a spotlight on the strength, courage and love.

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