Caleb's Crossing is Beautiful and Unique
By terpsichore on April 26, 2011
It's rare for a work of historical fiction to move me the way Caleb's Crossing did. Geraldine Brooks weaves a tale so rich in detail and so beautifully written that I found myself reading more slowly than usual just to be able to drink in the words.
Caleb's Crossing takes a little piece of history -- the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665 -- and she brings it to life from the point of view of Bethia, a childhood friend who craves an education that her sex will not allow her to have. Bethia watches Caleb grow and learn and ultimately cross over into the world of an English gentleman while she must take on the duties laid out before her as a woman.
Unfortunately, this isn't one of those heart-warming stories. Without spoiling the story, I can only say that I wept several times for the tragedies that Bethia suffered through. So much of her life was unfair: the fact that she could not attend school or take formal lessons, her position as an indentured servant in order to support her brother's education, and many painful losses. Even through this suffering, Bethia came across as a strong and loving woman.
One passage stuck out to me the most and it deals with Bethia's frustration with her gender role:
My father had loved me dearly; Master Corlett, I believed, felt true affection for me. Both were learned men who devoted their lives to teaching others. Then why not me? Why did they want to confine me in the prison of my own ignorance? Why was it so wrong, in their eyes, that I should love what they loved? Would Samuel prove the same, in the end? Would he, too, strive to put a bridle on my mind and a branks upon my tongue? Once again, I had spoken too freely. I seemed too dense witted to learn the simple lesson: silence was a woman's sole safe harbor.
I wanted to reach through the pages and hug her so badly at this point in the book. Samuel was the object of her affections later in the story, a man who was a great match for her wit and eagerness to learn.
While Caleb remained a main character throughout the entire book, his story was not the only one being told. Through Bethia's eyes, I watched him grow and change while she mourned the life she could never have. She was never bitter, though, and I think that Brooks did well not to make this into a feminist work that leaves one with a sour taste in the mouth. Oh, it could have been taken in that direction so that upon putting the book down, one would feel disgusted with early American society and its treatment of women. Brooks treated the matter with such elegance that I didn't even begin to feel sorry for Bethia just because she was a woman. I only felt sorry for her lot in life with regard to things that were beyond her control -- death, war, and illness.
I thoroughly enjoyed Caleb's Crossing and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys stepping into the past. I'm a sucker for historical fiction and this book did not disappoint.
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