Caleb's Crossing: So Much More Than I Expected
I didn’t think I read a lot of historical fiction, but when I checked Goodreads (which I use religiously), I realized I’d read 52 historical fiction books in the last four years. So, when I say that Geraldine Brooks’ new book, Caleb's Crossing, is one of the finest historical novels I’ve read in some time, I feel like I have some leg to stand on with that claim.
Some books are pretty straightforward -- you read the back cover for a summary of the plot and then you read the book which basically just fleshes out that plot. This book is nothing like that. You start out knowing that it’s about Caleb, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University and that he’s friends with Bethia, a Puritan girl he met as a young teenager. When he goes off to Harvard, Bethia has a job as a housekeeper nearby and she watches his transformation from “salvage” to scholar. But, oh, it’s so much more than that.
The book is not just about Caleb, and it’s not just about Bethia, either. It’s about a whole rich community of people trying to figure out how to live together. It’s about individuals trying to navigate a social system that doesn’t value them. It’s about trying to make sense of histories and values that are completely different from your own. It’s about making decisions that have long-lasting consequences.
Like the very best kind of historical fiction, the story isn’t just about people who died a long time ago, but also about how humans think and feel and function in every period of history, including today.
I wouldn’t have guessed I’d have much in common with a teenage girl living over three hundred years ago, denied an education because of her sex, who could be indentured for four years at the whim of her guardian and had little say in who she married, but I found myself highlighting line after line, thinking, “Yes! Yes! I know exactly what she is talking about!”
And the fact that the writing is so beautiful doesn’t hurt, either. It’s the perfect combination of beautiful prose and gripping storyline, neither stepping on the toes of the other.
Four years ago, my mom gave me a copy of Geraldine Brooks’ book Year of Wonders and I, shamefully, never even cracked the cover. Now I’m anxious to finally read it; if Caleb’s Crossing is any indication, her books are worth every minute spent reading them.