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Caleb's Crossing: A Novel Paperback – April 24, 2012
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Praise for Caleb's Crossing
“Caleb’s Crossing could not be more enlightening and involving. Beautifully written from beginning to end, it reconfirms Geraldine Brooks’s reputation as one of our most supple and involving novelists.” —Jane Smiley, The New York Times Book Review
“Brooks filters the early colonial era through the eyes of a minister’s daughter growing up on the island known today as Martha’s Vineyard…[Bethia’s] voice – rendered by Brooks with exacting attention to the language and rhythm of the seventeenth century – is captivatingly true to her time.” —The New Yorker
“A dazzling act of the imagination. . .Brooks takes the few known facts about the real Caleb, and builds them into a beautifully realized and thoroughly readable tale…this is intimate historical fiction, observing even the most acute sufferings and smallest heroic gestures in the context of major events.” —Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe
“In Bethia, Geraldine Brooks has created a multidimensional, inspiring yet unpredictable character…Bethia’s forbearance, her quiet insistence, the way she creates her life using the best of whatever is handed to her, puts the struggles of American women today in perspective.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times
“Original and compelling. . .[Brooks’ characters] struggle every waking moment with spiritual questions that are as real and unending as the punishing New England winters.”—Paul Chaat Smith, The Washington Post
About the Author
Geraldine Brooks is the author of five novels: the Pulitzer Prize-winning March; the international bestsellers Caleb's Crossing, People of the Book, and Year of Wonders; and, most recently, The Secret Chord. She has also written the acclaimed nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. Born and raised in Australia, she lives on Martha's Vinyard with her husband, the author Tony Horwitz, and their two sons.
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Top customer reviews
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In this beautifully researched novel of fiction you will meet Bethia, the daughter of one of the missionaries whose association with Caleb, a young and brilliant Indian boy teaches her of the land and its gifts around her and the acceptance of hardship as a method of education. Their friendship accompanies them through the entire novel as each of them in their own way protect one another.
The story is filled with the hardships of those early years and it takes Bethia through the cruelty of this education which is not possible for her as a girl, then a woman who, with her strength and intellect is able to learn by listening secretly to the teaches of her father and others who follow him in this mission to educate. These lessons through tragedy and ancient superstitions lead her to Harvard College where she sees her boyhood friend become the first Native American to graduate from this stronghold of universities.
Research and imagination bring you to disbelief and disgust as you learn of life and the cruelties of it in the 15th century of the colonies.
Don't let the slow pace of the beginning stop you. Follow characters who fit the tale to the end. It is an education in itself!
This novel is an education in itself. It is a fine example of the early years in our country.
So: I've read all of Geraldine Brooks's novels, and really enjoyed them. 'Year of Wonders' definitely makes it onto my top 10 of historicals (if you ignore the absurd epilogue) and I am a fussy reader! After a few recent attempts at historicals that just didn't deliver, I bought this figuring, given the author, that it was a sure bet. Unfortunately, I was wrong. This book falls into that category of novels that too many good writers seem to put out when they've become famous enough that anything goes. It's as if they feel pressured to come up with another story, and the editors check out and sign off on a mediocre offering because it's going to sell regardless...eeech.
Don't get me wrong: Brooks's prose in 'Caleb's Crossing' is still beautiful. But the story is, at best, confused, and at worst, tedious. As others have pointed out, this book has been disingenuously marketed as a story about the first native American to graduate from Harvard. In actuality, the novel skims the surface of Caleb's fascinating life, while focusing on a fictitious, oppressed-smart-girl narrator who's become a somewhat tedious stock character in Brooks's work. Which is sad, because this could have been an amazing study of parallel, marginalized lives in a colonial society if Bethia and Caleb had been given equal air-time.
Likewise, so much was suggested but left undeveloped in the plot, which could have made the novel much more interesting. The early relationship between Bethia and Caleb, for instance, suggested future romantic tension, which then entirely failed to materialize. Okay, 17th century puritan society would have precluded any serious relationship between these two; on the other hand, the relationship they DID form was equally improbable, as are a number of Bethia's actions by comparison. As in: would a girl who would willfully swallow a hallucinogenic drink pilfered from a native medicine man really never even consider the romantic possibilities with her native best friend? And then, when a love interest for Bethia does eventually happen along, he's nowhere near as interesting as Caleb. I could never quite understand why she was overcome with lust for the irritating Samuel, while apparently impervious to it with Caleb. So many interesting secondary characters remained equally, frustratingly undeveloped - Makepeace, Anne, and Joel to name a few.
So, yes, a disappointment. I wish Brooks would go back and write Caleb's story from Caleb's point of view!
The title of the book refers to Caleb's transition from "salvage" into the world of Christian men. Brooks makes up a female character, Bethia Mayfield, daughter to a minister on the island, to serve as the voice for the story. Young Bethia, who chafes at the role imposed upon her by the Calvinist religion, meets Caleb while wandering across the island when they are both about ten years old. For several years they maintain their friendship in secret, until Caleb is taken into Bethia's family's home so that her father might educate him in preparation for entry into Harvard.
While the book is nominally about the crossing of Caleb into the white man's world, it seems to be more about Bethia's viewpoint of the juxtaposition between the Puritan world and the much more naturalistic world of the Wampanoag tribe. It is in her friendship with Caleb that she is able to find true respect for her intelligence, learning and knowledge-- knowledge and intelligence she has to keep hidden from her own family, because it is improper for a woman.
Bethia's voice and attitude seem appropriate for the era-- there is little emotion displayed throughout even as her family endures one tragedy after another, and she is sold into indentured servitude to pay for her brother and Caleb's tuition into prep school and then into Harvard. She does demonstrate some pique at being forced into servitude to pay for her brother's education when she is so much more intelligent than he, but overall she accepts it as she is reluctant to concede to the alternative, marriage to a local farmer. She is hopeful that she will at least be able to overhear some illuminating discussions that will further her own education. Once she and Caleb leave the island, however, the book loses something. The story becomes less about Caleb and more about Bethia's continuous striving for education and her feelings for her future husband, an instructor at Harvard who is not put off by her hunger for learning.
And that is perhaps the problem-- once Bethia and Caleb part ways, there just isn't much more to say about their story. While the book purports to be about Caleb and his transition to the white man's world, it is more about Bethia and her fight to educate herself in a world in which women are not allowed to express or explore their intelligence. As another reviewer noted, the reader never really gets to see how Caleb feels about anything. We know he makes his "crossing" because he wants to help his people, but beyond that, we know little about how he really feels. What did he think of the hypocrisy of his new world, about the unfairness of the demand that he give up his own religious traditions in order to become a part of the white world, and about the fact that even though he graduated from Harvard, he was never really accepted into the white society?
Likewise we never really learn much about how he and Bethia feel about each other. We know they have a strong bond of friendship, that they are drawn to each other as children and that he accepts her in a way that none of the other men in her life ever do. Bethia's narrative pulls no punches in relating the less savory aspects of colonial life, nor does she shy from voicing thoughts that, were they spoken aloud, would send her into exile. She even mentions her physical attraction to her fiance at one point, so why does she not ever mention even a hint of any sort of attraction for Caleb? Is it that the thought of it is so outside the realm of possibility in her world that she can't even conceive of it? Perhaps- but her brother certainly thinks of it so it can't have been completely inconceivable.
Whatever the reason, I would much rather Brooks had ended the book once Caleb graduated from Harvard because there just didn't seem to be any point to the story after that. Up to that point, however, I was completely immersed in Bethia's world and found the book hard to put down.
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Caleb. But as they became older it occurred to me they could never marry. Therefore they handled their lives remarkably.