The Problem with Historical Language in Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

Did you know the first Native American graduated from Harvard in 1665? Caleb's Crossing, written by Geraldine Brooks, is a novel of historical fiction set in Cambridge and the island now called Martha's Vineyard in the late 17th century. It is written in a diary style, from the perspective of Bethia, the daughter of a pioneering puritan minister. Caleb's Crossing tells the story of Caleb, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Sort of.

After a bit of a slow start establishing the rhythm of island life for the settlers and exploring their oft tenuous relationship with their Native American neighbors, the plot picks up a bit when the setting moves to Cambridge. Bethia shoulders an enormous burden but is placed in a situation where she can watch over the men in her life and find her path. The novel closed with a finite ending that brought the plots to a finite conclusion.

I must admit that I am not a frequent reader of historical fiction and while this book is an engaging read, there are a few too many tics of historical fiction writing to make it completely enjoyable. The diary format hampered the flow of the story, the mentions at the beginning of some chapters of how it had been a while since Bethia had written seemed unnecessary and intruded on the progression of the story.

The language used was also problematic. The sprinkling of historic phrases here and there distracted from the story. In one instances, Bethia states that she tended to her tegs in the field. In the context of the sentence there was absolutely no way of knowing whether teg was even flora or fauna. A few sentences later, she mentioned ewes and I understood tegs to be sheep. Other random phrases included bever, murther and the near constant use of the term salvage in reference to Native Americans. To some degree, I think the obscure, historic words and awkward phrasing were intended to give the novel an authentic historic feel, but proved to be confusing; phrases like "the cold seeped into my clogs and set my chilblains a-throbbing," are mixed in with modern word choices and structure.

Overall, I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially those who love the old-timey style of writing. The story is interesting enough to get past the writing issues for those who are not fans of the genre, but I would love to know about the real Caleb, as he is based on an historical figure, rather than the musings of a completely made up narrator.


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