Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha’s Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.
The narrator of Caleb’s Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island’s glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe’s shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb’s crossing of cultures.
Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha’s Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart.
—Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment
I didn’t choose this book to read. I wasn’t terribly upset about it being chosen as my Book Club’s first book of the year because other choice could have been a lot less interesting. I’ve never been a chick lit sort of person and to me this book falls right into that category, except maybe you can add historical to it as well. I did find Caleb to be a very compelling character, but as a secondary character this can only go so far.
—Pro and Cons: A Review
This book is broken down into three sections based on time period and location: Great Harbor in 1660, Cambridge in 1661 and Great Harbor again in 1715. You’ll be surprised to know that I really enjoyed the first section of this book. This is obviously a superior writer and she knows how to setup a narrator and get us to identify and sympathize with said character. I say superior because one of the things many writers don’t do so well is getting us to connect to the protagonist. So first hurdle overcome.
On a negative note there was an odd twisting of time back and forth before and after Bethia’s mother died. It was a totally unnecessary technique and didn’t add anything to the story except confusion and dizziness. A modern technique I think the writer used it because it’s one of her trademark techniques and it adds slightly to the feeling you are in a person’s head. A man or a woman will think back on memories or on a general time period and apply what they thought back then to what is going on in the present. I thought it unnecessary because the narrator herself (Bethia) told us this is a diary of what happened to her. In a diary it is conceivable that you would do the same as in your thoughts but not as likely. If you were to think back it would be in an ordered way because you are writing it down after ordering your thoughts, especially because she was supposedly writing on little bits of trash paper left over from her brother’s lessons. So there would have been no back and forth in time from one line to the next like there was in the narrative.
A side complaint, just to get them all out, is about the little baby sister, Solace, that died. I wish after the mother passed at the girl’s birth that Bethia had mentioned how she loved her little sister. I really desired to feel the conflict a birth-death inspires in a person toward their sibling. I wanted to be inspired to love the baby as much as Bethia herself did. She had to adore that little girl to feel a pang at her loss so many years later in life. So why not inspire that pang in me so when I think back I feel it too? Now maybe as a women with children just the thought of a child dying sickens you and brings heartache… What about the few men who will read this, and in these modern times many women have a dislike of children and need to have a connection built for them when it comes to children. A little mention here and there and anyone would have felt the heartache.
On another negative note, because this was a diary, I felt like the words used would have been simpler and less complex when the girl was young as compared to when the girl was an old woman with a lot more knowledge under her belt. She waxed poetic like an adult with an adult’s view yet told us this was a written narration from when she was a girl. It’s a subtle thing and perhaps not important at all. I just thought why not eliminate the idea that this section was written as a girl and simply present it as thoughts back to when she was a girl. It solves both of my negative notes and eliminates any bumps to my or another reader’s suspension of disbelief.
The poetic waxing is not to my personal taste but I felt she did so with skill and it would delight many a fan. In fact one of the women in my book club loved this snippet of waxing about a shell on a beach and how they are all different and how she (Bethia) wondered if the Lord expects us to take notice. On a positive note I felt like Martha’s Vineyard was shown off to great effect in the setting and it definitely played a contrast to Bethia’s youth (on the island) and her young adulthood (in Cambridge). The waxing also contributed to this idea that Bethia was a romantic and longed after things that were forbidden and denied to her. This is a good thing as she desired learning which indeed during these times were denied to women even by men close to them, like Bethia’s father.
Bethia as a narrator is nothing else if not a true representation of a woman. Filled with guilt and loathing toward her sins and the outcomes she perceives are due to her actions, she gives the reader a sense of being inside a very real girl/woman. This really helped the flow of the book, the hop-scotch time jumping and the odd un-aging feel to the narrative as Bethia aged. She goes a long way with selling this story if not the book itself. I admired many of the things she chose to do and the faith in which she approached life. There was a very real spiritual belief in the character that speaks to the same, as well as a curiosity toward people that is to be admired.
Really I have to say the best thing about the first section of the book lay in the love and connection Bethia engendered between the reader and Caleb. I looked forward to the next time they met and what would be said as well as mourned their argument that caused them to part ways for a time. The writer really made you feel like Caleb would be a major part of Bethia’s life and a rather positive one as he was not bound by the restrictions of her father or brother. I never felt sated on Caleb. I wanted to know more of the character.
One of the reasons my enthusiasm wanes for the second and third sections of this book is because Caleb wanes in appearance in these sections. While he’s present for the entire time in Cambridge Bethia has very little interaction or even thought about him. He doesn’t really enter into her desires or ideas about life or the choices she wants. Caleb is like on this other journey and while they ran parallel for some of their youth their young adulthood skewed away from each other. I found this most odd since the name of the book was Caleb’s Crossing.
That said I found the experiences Bethia went through in the second section to be fascinating and really evocative of the time period and of the struggle of women through history. They were also personal, really personal as you’ve gotten to know and understand Bethia on an intimate level. The best historical novels make what is a widespread experience from history feel like something you or someone you loved experienced today. When Bethia had to stand before her congregation and tell everyone that she had shamed her brother. My heart really broke for her, as it does for those women in the middle east who are tortured by their husbands. She’s such a good woman that you really feel for her that she has to look like some shameful hussy even though it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Probably though I could have accepted the havey-cavey nature of Cambridge if the last section were better written. It really felt like the writer had hit the limit of her time to work on this book and then rushed to put an ending to it. The time jumping had a lot to do with this. If written in a more organized manner I feel like it would have neatly knotted the story together. She could have brought us to certain conclusions that she herself hadn’t realized until late in life when she was about to die. As it was I felt like the Bethia I’d grown to love in Great Harbor was gone, and like someone you knew as a child but not as an adult, we no longer shared anything in common. You feel a pang of loss then move on – no longer giving them a thought.
As it was all the negatives could have been overcome by a well-positioned pay off. I’ve talked about pay offs in past posts and how they pull the most dreary of middles back into success land. (Read more on pay offs here: http://yaykisspurr.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/the-walking-dead-out-on-the-farm/) There was no such pay off to end this story. I ended up caring little that Caleb passed into the spirit world and worried more whether minor character Anne would survive without minor character Joel. My expectations were to experience how Caleb’s Crossing represented Bethia. I never felt it did and that’s the saddest of all.
The title of a book is so important. Except for the cover art, there is nothing else to draw in a reader. A title inspires certain expectations about the subject of a book before the cover art or even the marketing blurb. So what does Caleb’s Crossing sound like it’s about? Well I’ve given that away a bit in my review so far, but that makes the question easier to answer. You expect this book to be about Caleb’s death and how it affects Bethia. From reading the book, you also expect to understand how Caleb becoming Christian and crossing over to Bethia’s world from the Indian world of his heritage affects the narrator.
It’s a great dual meaning title that would be the cherry on top if I felt like Caleb had any effect on Bethia whatsoever. My problem lies in the fact you could subtract Caleb from Bethia’s life and she’d have made the same choices she did with Caleb in her life. The book is called Caleb’s Crossing yet the protagonist is about a woman named Bethia. So it stands to reason that without Caleb, Bethia wouldn’t be Bethia.
In the first section the writer sets up Caleb as this playmate that exposed Bethia to this alternate way of living. She is taught his native language by communicating with him and in turn teaches him English. They buddy, buddy around and act as each other’s companion and point of contact to the other’s world. But even though Bethia is essential to Caleb and his crossing, he is not essential to her development. In fact her being essential to his crossing does not change her as a person or the choices she makes in the future. The writer built-in alternate motivations that stem from other people in her life.
Her mother played a huge motivator as to desiring to be educated. She could tell that her mother desired her to have at least physical freedom in her youth even if she couldn’t give her smart daughter educational freedom. Bethia desired educational knowledge because of her father, a minister whom she admired for his life’s passion with converting the Indians. Her brother, Makepeace, was of a very strict religious mien and inspired in her philosophical curiosity as to the Indian’s gods and whether they were as valid as her own god. These are all things Caleb could have been instrumental in inspiring in Bethia, but there was no need – her family played that role way before Caleb came along. And her motivations do not change during the course of the book so he doesn’t even cause a shift in desires or wants.
The writer engendered in the reader this feeling that Bethia desired Caleb in ways beyond friendship. Much like I wanted the writer to inspire me to feel love toward Solace, she expertly lead us to believe Bethia had feelings for Caleb. Nothing came of these feelings. Nothing. Not an admission in her thoughts or feelings of guilt. She acted like she doth protest too much at her brother’s accusations of lust toward Caleb but she never actually admitted even in her personal diary that she felt any such way. The writer beautifully showed us Bethia’s feelings without coming out and telling anything but forgot to tell the character she felt something. What’s the point of those feelings if they never result in anything?
For example, while she was at Cambridge she could have went off with Caleb for secret lessons on what he learned that day or week. In this way a more emotional relationship could have been avoided while furthering her desires for learning engendered by her parents. She could have entertained dreams of going off with Caleb and having a totally new life out on the frontier. The feelings she felt toward Caleb could have been rejected and yet motivated her to fall in love with her Christian husband, Samuel. Really by developing both of these we could see where Caleb intertwined with Bethia. In the end though he had to have effected her choices.
Another lost opportunity was Caleb’s effect on her marriage. Whatever her relationship with Caleb, he would have caused conflict in her married life. For a person who can be defined by another’s crossing, this would be a touchy topic and of great influence on their relationship. No way would a man, even a forward thinking man, allow his wife to go haring off onto Indian lands to find some old medicine man, all for a heathen already dying. She would have had to argue and fight for the right to bestow peace on Caleb. Conflict, as I’ve said in the past, is the best influx in a story. It enriches and enlivens any narrative.
The writer started with a certain conclusion in mind and (I felt like) she felt like there were boundaries she didn’t want to cross. This book has at it’s core a religious commentary. Whether you are for or against religion it is all about boundaries and exploring the thoughts and ideas on both sides. Then you make your decision. I had no problem with Bethia choosing her religion and a Christian husband for the majority of her life, but she should have at the very least flirted with the bridge Caleb provided. By exploring these boundaries we would have seen Caleb’s effect and truly understood why he had to make the crossing, satisfying his role as title character.
As I said in my Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment this was my Book Club’s first selection for 2012. Growing up I read a lot of historical fiction books and loved ones about Indians in the old west. I never really liked ones about the east coast and tended to stay away from those if I ever even finished one.
By now you can see I’m terribly frustrated by this book. I knew though before going in that my Book Club would adore this book. For them the story was all about this girl Bethia and the experiences they wouldn’t want to have but that she went through. Almost a romance of a hard life. I find that brutality attracts an audience whether on the road, in a book or on a screen. It works in this books favor, especially for women.
One lady pointed out that she’d have really liked the book to be about what it said it was on the jacket: “In 1665, a young man from Martha’s Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.” Besides my writing partner, she was my only defender. I feel like she has a really good point. I found Caleb’s journey a lot more fascinating and compelling. I think the story as it is would have worked well with my changes but I also believe a story straight up about Caleb and Bethia’s effect on him and his crossing would have been just as good.
Life was brutal back in 1665, in ways we will probably never experience, especially for women and Indians. It’s good to keep abreast that these kinds of prejudices happened and not to repeat them. I just wanted a little bit more of the Indian like I was promised.
The better written a work, the more obvious and more painful the mistakes. It saddens me that Caleb’s crossing into the English world lead him no where, that he left no lasting mark on the world and that his sacrifice was only worth an empty title and a useless plaque. If you desire a jaunt through Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600′s with a modern woman born at the wrong time then forget the title and go for it. Otherwise learn to flip through the beginning of any book you buy and don’t be deceived by the jacket’s marketing tactics.
Do you enjoy historical stories? Would you be pissed if the title character were an after thought? Is religion a topic you mind exploring?