Caleb's Crossing: Historical fiction at its best
With Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks reminded me how wonderfully painful a good book can be; this is the kind of story that reaches out and pulls you in, swallows you whole, the kind that allows you to walk along inside of it with the characters, only climbing out reluctantly when life (real life) requires it, but returning as soon as possible.
I’ve always been a fan of historical fiction, although lately there just never seems to be enough time to read just for the sake of reading, and the few books I’ve tried to read lately don’t catch or hold my interest. I thought it was me, not the books. I thought I was too scatterbrained, too overwhelmed or stressed or busy or whatever to relax enough to enjoy them.
Thanks to Brooks, I know it was the books, not me. As soon as possible, I’m going to read the rest of her works. If Caleb’s Crossing is any indication, I’ll love them. She has a wonderful ability to in a way that makes it come alive and stay interesting. The history doesn't bog it down.
Caleb’s Crossing is the coming-of-age story of Bethia, a young Puritan girl living on what is now Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s. Through her we experience the frustrations of being an intelligent woman during that period of time, when women aren't supposed to be more intelligent than men, or have a desire for education.
That would be interesting enough, but Brooks includes the story of Caleb, a Wampanoag Indian also living on the island, who becomes Bethia’s secret best friend in spite of the Puritan society she lives in.
Caleb also becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College -- that part is true. It's the nonfiction seed Brooks planted in her imagination, and from which blossomed this story of friendship, sacrifice, forgiveness, hope and faith, without any trace of cheap, manipulative sentimentality.
The story is told in Bethia’s voice, journal-style, told from different periods of her life. I didn’t find it difficult to follow the Old World dialect; it is consistent and light, just enough for authenticity, in my opinion. The characters are realistic, possessing both good and bad traits, strengths and weaknesses. They aren't stagnant, but evolve with time and life's experiences, just as we do. They are what kept me turning the pages; I truly hated to tell them goodbye.
For me, that’s the sign of a good book.