Caleb's Crossing or Bethia's Blossoming?

BlogHer Review

I wanted to like this book. But in the end, I just didn't.

The idea is a great one - according to the back cover of Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, it's the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College back when it was a divinity school in 1665. And the man lived on Martha's Vineyard, a place with an interesting history of its own -- how cool is that? Let's just say this book might have been awesome if the book had focused more on the historical Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and less on his fictional childhood friend Bethia Mayfield -- daughter of a minister, wannabe scholar, and far too wishy-washy a character to base an entire book on.

Don't get me wrong -- there were things I really liked about the novel. I enjoyed the early bits that were more ramblings about the natural beauty of Martha's Vineyard than anything else -- tidepools, sandy beaches, dappled forests? Good stuff. The book hinted at some interesting political intrigues between the different groups of 'pilgrims' who originally settled the area, not to mention the shady dealings of the original Indian College Society, which was set up to provide for the education of Native Americans, but which was regularly prodded to do more for English students than for Native American ones. However, the elements of fiction in the book left something to be desired.

I had a hard time believing that a minister's daughter in the mid 1600s would have left a rendering camp to dance naked in the woods. The story of her meetings with Cheeshahteaumauk was told in fits and starts, choosing to follow Bethia's story even when his would have been much more interesting. Most annoying though, was that throughout the early part of the book, Bethia alternated between confessing that she, too, worshipped the sun and all of nature, and trying desperately to convert Caleb to Christianity and to atone for her own sins. Her progression from paganism to a stricter form of Calvinism was likely intended to act as a mirror for Caleb's conversion, which was given short-shrift, but I had a hard time believing that so thoughtful a woman, as we were being asked to believe her, would be so long confused by her own spirituality. I could have believed her to be comforted by either spiritual path, but not both simultaneously!

In a book where the dialog reads almost like modern American dialect, where the sensibilities of the characters are more modern than ancient, I found the occasional archaic spelling to be jarring. Having to read 'salvage' for 'savage' just threw me out of the story every time it happened. Same with 'bevar' for 'bevarage'. Yeah, the events in the story happened a long time ago. Words were different and were used differently back then. I get it. But for the purposes of fiction, I would have been happier if the author had either stuck to temporal idioms or had chosen to modernize the language throughout.

There was an odd jump out of the mostly-linear storytelling right around chapter 23. There, the author takes us fifty years in the future as Bethia is dying - to serve no purpose other than to tell us how the story ends - a good ten chapters before it actually ends. This was jarring and unnecessary and made everything that came after seem like an afterthought - a postscript.

But most damning for me was that despite a bevy of interesting characters who could have been very compelling, there was very little 'heart' in the book. When Bethia was to be indentured, I couldn't bring myself to care overmuch. When Caleb was discovered to be ill on the very day of his graduation, I shrugged.  Ah, she gets out of marrying the man she doesn't love because he's in love with someone else, which frees her to marry the man she loves. Whatever.  All of the opportunities for making the story ring with conflict and eventual resolution were sort of glossed over, with key plotlines developing entirely in summary, without any hardship to the main character at all. I guess I wanted to read a historical novel, and this one is more of a gentle romance.

For all that, the book did make me go look up some of Anne Bradstreet's poetry and refamiliarize myself with Anne Hutchinson's history, so it wasn't a waste of time.  It just made me wish that the author had made me care more about the story she was telling, rather than intriguing me about stories she merely touched on in her novel.

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