Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review Friday: Caleb's Crossing


     Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks is a novel about Native Americans and the first white settlers in New England.  The name is deceptive because Caleb's Crossing is really the story of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister growing up in the first settlement on Martha's Vineyard in the 1660s.  On a solitary outing in the woods a young Bethia meets a Wampanoag Indian boy about her own age, his name is Cheeshahteaumauk.  She calls him Caleb.  He calls her Storm Eyes.  The two form an unlikely friendship and share much of their cultures and languages with each other as they continue to meet in secret.  Eventually Caleb embraces Christianity and becomes the first Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard.  Caleb's experiences serve as a backdrop for the story of Bethia's own life and her longing for education and learning. 
     I am torn because there are parts of this story I truly loved and parts I didn't love at all.  Brooks' narrative was at times compelling.  Bethia's experiences gave amazing insight into the lives of women in puritan New England.  The challenges that Caleb and Joel faced and overcame were incredible.  The course of study at Harvard University was frighteningly rigorous.  And the historical information about Martha's Vineyard, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the beginnings of Harvard University was fascinating. 
     However, I have two complaints: First, Brooks' portrays almost all the whites (except the Mayfields) as arrogant bigots, and the native peoples as all uniformly portrayed as tall, handsome, and shiny.  These stereotypes are shallow and far from helpful.  And finally, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and his classmate Joel Iacoomis were real people.  In her notes Ms. Brooks states that she used their names to honor their memories though she has no biographical facts and her story was purely fictional . I am uncertain that writing fiction about the life of a real person is an "honor."  In my opinion it would be better to write a story based on the facts, but change the names to protect the innocent and reflect the purely fictional nature of the work. 

      I listened to the audio version.  The reader, Jennifer Ehle, in trying to imitate the clipped speaking style of the Puritans sounded as if she were a foreign speaker sounding out English words syllable by syllable for the first time.  When the characters were speaking in an impassioned way Ehle lost the stilted affectation and I was able to lose myself in the story.

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