Caleb's Crossing: A Gritty Look at Puritan America

BlogHer Review

I was hidden away, soaking in a hot tub, reading about witch doctors and debauchery by candlelight. Surely this slothful indulgence will pull me off the path of righteousness and make a wanton woman of me. It would have been thought so without a doubt in a Puritan settlement in the mid 1600s. Simply the act of reading may have been enough to have me severely chastised, if not called before the court. Such was the social and religious climate that young Bethia accepted as her reality, while desperately wishing for change.

In Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks, Bethia narrates the story through her personal journal. The journal shares her desires, fears, and darkest confessions. Although Bethia holds nothing back, the restraint of her thought life reflects the culture of her time. She confesses to sins that almost make me laugh, except that I feel so much compassion for the (in my mind) unnecessary guilt she heaps upon herself.

I realize that even Christians today seem to think that our faith is to be driven by guilt. There is this scary thought among some that the worse you make someone feel about their struggles and shortcomings, the more likely they are to do better. But that's not the example set by Jesus. The only ones He chastised were those who lied, cheated, and stole while pretending to be holy and perfect. To everyone else, He showed love and compassion, and offered a better way.

I know so many people (myself included) who have been deeply hurt by the judgment of those who call themselves Christian, and my heart aches at that. But how much worse it seems it would have been almost 350 years ago. The Christian community I read about in Caleb's Crossing is run by guilt to the extreme!

Bethia blames herself for the death of loved ones, believing their loss to be a punishment for her sins. She questions the circumstances and decisions of her life, torn between regret and acceptance. Her life is ruled not only by guilt, but also by the unfairness of a male dominated society.

Spoiler alert!

As she thanks her brother for his required beating of her, I so desperately wanted her to shake things up with a well placed knee. When she humbly agrees to be sold as servant, I yearn for her to decide instead to run away with the Wampanoag native Caleb, the only man who seems to truly understand her.

But Geraldine Brooks stays true to the time. This is not a romance novel. This is not a story of female empowerment. It is a gritty, unforgiving look back in time at what life was really like. There's no need to resort to the typical shock factors of today's entertainment. The prejudice, the racism, the danger -- the reality of the time is more shocking than any fiction.

If you enjoy historical fiction as I do, I know you'll find this book fascinating. While it's certainly not what I would call a feel good novel, it's thought provoking story is sure to be the topic of many exciting book club discussions.

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