Review: Caleb's Crossing

Caleb's Crossing has been on my bookshelf for years. My friend Carole and I purchased it in 2011 as soon as we saw it for sale. Both she and I enjoyed Geraldine Brooks' books in the past. We have seen met her on previous book signing tours and enjoyed her other books.

And yet this one languished on our shelves for years.

After reading it, I can see why: it was not her best.

The story is of Caleb, a Native American Indian who lived on the island now known as Martha's Vineyard, who was the first of his tribe to graduate from Harvard University in 1665.

Well, not exactly. It's as much about the narrator, Bethia Mayfield, as the character named in the title. Bethia  is a teenage English girl who, remarkably, is a feminist of her age. She was smarter than her older brother, who was being educated to follow his father into the ministry, but was denied an education because of her sex. She chafed against her society's boundaries. One of her society's boundaries was a relationship with any American Indian on the island, with whom her settlement had an uneasy truce. She chose a relationship with a young male of the tribe, an added taboo.

Alas, Caleb's world was described by an outsider with no intimate knowledge of his culture. Indeed, she harbored many of the biases against Caleb's people as her own society did. The second-hand information, filtered through Bethia's eyes, dampened my enthusiasm for the novel. Never did we get Caleb's perspective, and Caleb's words were shared through Bethia, who was not a reliable narrator.

The novel is written as a personal journal kept by Bethia — often written days, months, even years after an event. Her details are complete, rich and full,  not at all like journal entries one would expect so long after the fact, and another reason for me to mistrust her as a narrator. References to historical events and characters were carefully shared to create a sense of connection to this colonial period. If you like colonial history, this might be a good book for you.

Bethia's character was a 21st century woman who every once in a while flashed a colonial, meeker face. The constant interjection of her religious beliefs in her writing and the use of colonial-period language didn't change that fact: she was not a girl of that age.

Finally, there was little urgency in the tale. Only once or twice did I rush through the story to discover the resolution of a situation.

I'm sorry to say I wouldn't recommend this book.

I can, however, recommend every other tome in Brooks' collection. Consider that, then read Caleb's Crossing, and tell me if you agree with my assessment.