Caleb's Crossing Made Me Happy to Live in the Present

BlogHer Review

I’ve read a number of books that have made me thank my lucky stars that I was born in the United States in the 1970s rather than, say, in China in the 1920s, Appalachia at the turn of the century or Europe in the 1920s.* The world has been a difficult place for the ladies, and I’m grateful to be able to read about trials and hardships rather than having to live them. I know that sounds awfully trite, but it’s true. Every time I read about women’s struggles, it makes me feel so fortunate and so blessed to be where I am.

Geraldine Brooks’ newest novel has given me a yet another time and place to be thankful that I did not personally experience.

Caleb's Crossing is primarily the story of Bethia Mayfield, a rather bright young girl growing up on the island that would become Martha’s Vineyard, and Caleb, a boy from the Wampanoag tribe with whom Bethia’s family comes to share the island. And colonial America? It was not a free-wheeling, easy-like-Sunday-morning place for anyone to live. I mean, Sunday wasn’t even easy like Sunday morning. It was a particularly difficult time and place for bright young girls and Native American boys, as is made abundantly clear in this book.

The character Caleb is based on Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University. That in itself is a fascinating story, but in Caleb’s Crossing it seems to serve as the catalyst for Bethia’s story and a starting point for a history lesson on tensions between the settlers and the native people. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the book or become invested in the characters. The history of the island and the interactions between the English and the Wampanoag were equal parts sad, infuriating and compelling reading material. Bethia and Caleb’s stories, too, were captivating and maddening for most of the book. I did, however, find Bethia’s romantic life a bit irritating. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that I didn’t really buy the sudden passion toward the end of her life as a single lady.

Mostly, reading Caleb’s Crossing reiterated a fact of which I was already aware: I do not have the constitution or fortitude to have thrived in colonial America. Maybe that would be different if I had to live a life made of digging wells, sleeping on burlap sacks and not being allowed to read rather than my comparatively luxurious life of washing machines, women’s rights and the Internet. But I certainly would not direct my Tardis, Circle K phone booth or plutonium-enhanced DeLorean toward the 1600s just to test the theory.

*See: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chung; Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.