Poetry and Prose in Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

Bethia Mayfield is an intellectual butterfly trapped in the net of her father's ideology. Caleb's Crossing written by Geraldine Brooks is the tale of Puritan life on a small island off the coast of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The story is narrated by Bethia Mayfield, a frustrated adolescent hungry for knowledge and learning who strikes an unlikely friendship with a Native American boy she names Caleb. We find out early Bethia is quick-witted and intelligent with a mind of her own.

Training to become a pawaaw (witch-doctor) under his powerful uncle, Caleb teaches Bethia in the ways of naturalistic healing and efficient farming. But the education goes both ways. Bethia schools Caleb in his letter, numbers, Latin and English; learning she has picked up on the sly during her father’s tutoring of her older brother, Makepeace.

I really liked the beginning of this book. The tension between Bethia and her father combined with the tension between Bethia and Caleb’s two systems of belief is fascinating leaving me breathlessly following the pair over sand dunes and through the forest as they fish, gather clams, and harvest edible plants.

The book is laid out in three sections of Bethia’s life and the ones subsequent to her adolescence seem less creative and more cliché. Because the author is trying to flesh out a small historical outline of the first Native American graduate of Harvard (portrayed by Caleb), I understand her need to shift the focus and scenery of the story. There are good points of interest and conflict throughout, but overall I was more moved and engaged toward the beginning of the book.

However, the story is still a worth-while read, especially for the sucker of historical fiction as I am. Brooks writes with fluid words, at times making prose seem like poetry. Her descriptions are vivid and her ability to weave a tale of faith, superstition and doubt pull the reader through the pages and into another time.

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