But The Baby Dies: Facing Grief in Caleb's Crossing
Warning: this book gave me a couple of sleepless nights. I love historical fiction. And I loved Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders so when I got her newest book Caleb's Crossing in my hands I couldn't wait to read it. True to form, I couldn't put it down. So why the melodrama about nightmares? A baby dies. I don't feel like this pronouncement even needs a spoiler alert as the baby's death is only a minor plot development but as a mom who has lost an infant -- although thankfully not in the same way as Bethia (the main character) does -- it always feels like a sucker punch when an author chooses to kill off a baby as a means to further the story.
As soon as I read it, I had to stop to have a good (soundless -- my kids were in the next room) cry and then I dreamed about my baby girl that night. My reaction may seem a little unwarranted -- it's fiction, right? -- but anyone who has lost a child knows that grief has a way of surprising you and having been through the experience you can't help but feel for any other woman in the same position, whether she's real or not.
Some novels, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, obviously could not be written without the catalyst of the baby's death (Good Land was that ever a hard book to read) but in other works of fiction it can come off as gratuitous -- an easy way to manipulate the reader's sympathies and amp up the drama. I'm honestly not sure which camp this book falls into; as seen through other examples in the book (a woman with nine children heartlessly turned out into the wilderness during winter to die, other babies dying of smallpox, two bloody miscarriages and even Bethia's twin brother and younger brother are stillborn) it was a hard time. So was Brooks just trying to stay true to the brutality of the time and show the immense burdens that the women had to bear or was she just going for an easy emotional ploy? Did Solace really have to die???
As for the rest of the book, I very much enjoyed this well-researched look into what life in the early Puritan colonies might have been like. While it felt a little Pocahontas-John Smith the Disney Version early on, the ending wrapped things up in a very satisfactory and realistic way. I learned many things I didn't know -- for instance, I had no idea that Cambridge had an "Indian college" and the insights into both Native American (of which I am descended) and Puritan culture were fascinating.
But I'll admit it -- the thing that stayed with me the most after I finished the book was not the plucky, brave Bethia or the handsome, tragic Caleb but was the image of baby Solace face down in a puddle three feet from her family.
Am I crazy? Does anyone else have reactions like this to fictional plot lines that echo a real-life trauma?