Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks

And here I was thinking I wouldn’t like historical fiction!

Caleb’s Crossing is set in 1660 and for me it doesn’t get much more historical than that. I like early 20th century history but this was a step outside my comfort zone – and it has been one of my favourite reads so far this year.

Geraldine Brooks has set her fictional story around the true facts of the first Native American, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, to graduate from Harvard University (in 1665). Caleb, as he came to be known, was from the Wampanoag Tribe of Martha’s Vineyard and was taught by a Puritan Minister on their island before crossing over to the mainland and eventually graduating. Of course the crossing of Caleb involves so much more than a physical journey.

I have read one other of Geraldine Brooks’ novels, People of the Book. Both stories are excellently researched although there was a double narrative and flicking back and forth between the past and present in People of the Book which I didn’t like so much. I’m pleased Geraldine Brooks chose to use one narrator for her latest book, and suprisingly perhaps from the title, that narrator is not Caleb.

Instead we hear the story from the voice of Bethia Mayfield, 12 years old at the beginning, who makes a new friend one day while out riding – a ‘salvage’ boy who becomes known as Caleb.

“At first, I followed this wild boy hungering after his knowledge of the island -his deep understanding of everything tht bloomed or swam or flew. Soon enough, a curiosity about an untamed soul had kindled and this, too, caused me to seek him out. But it was his light temper and his easy laugh that drew me close to him, over time, until I forgot he was a half-naked, sassafras-scented heathen anointed with racoon grease. He was, quite simply, my dearest friend ”

I love that passage.

Bethia is a a curious and bright girl who wants to explore and be educated along with her brother. But she is bound by the constraints of her time and has to employ ingenious ways of being involved. Although an entirely fictional character, she is like a pioneer for women, graciously accepting what has to be whilest pushing the boundaries at every opportunity! A new literary heroine for me.

Geraldine Brooks has written a beautiful story that gently introduces the reader to the controversial issues of religion and spirituality and the completely different values and lifestyles of the Christian missionaries and the native American people. Through Bethia, she presents a non judgmental and open minded way of looking at differences and accepting that there may be more than one right way. It is also a beautifully wrapped history lesson, a step back into the 17th century with all the harshness and sadness that life could bring then – all against the backdrop of Caleb’s true story.

One of the questions that is subtly asked is ‘Was it a full success for Caleb? Were the sacrifices he made worth it?

It appears there is a limited amount known about Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck. To help the reader separate fact from fiction in her story, there is an afterword written by Geraldine Brooks. I appreciated this and coming away knowing which parts were true and which were simply wonderful story telling.

2011, 539 pages

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4 responses to “Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks

  1. One of my book clubs chose this to read for May; I was not thrilled because I really, strongly disliked March by Brooks. However, your review encourages me! I always seem to like the books you like. xo

  2. Hi Belezza – merry festive season to you 0:) I’m curious now as to what it was you really didn’t like about March. I haven’t read that as always planned to re read Little Women first. It’s interesting though as there were a couple of things about People of the Book that I didn’t like at all. These were the over promotion of all things Australian (being a kiwi I admit I may have been a little sensitive to that!) and the style of the present day character.

    I hope if you do decide to read Caleb’s Crossing that you like it too and I haven’t steered you in the wrong direction 0:)

  3. Heard so many raves about Geraldine Brook and I’m thinking I really should read her books soon. Her writing is very diverse and on Nine Part of Desire she wrote about muslim women in the 9 countries that she visits.

  4. Jo – I was thinking the same thing about how diverse her writing is. So much research seems to have gone into the two I have read. I am interested to read the book you describe too, I’ve heard of it and will be good to see how she presents total non fiction.

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