Caleb's Crossing: How Many Times Can Geraldine Brooks Break My Heart?
I was thrilled when BlogHer announced that the first book the book club would review would be Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing. I have read everything Ms. Brooks has written (her fiction, anyway), and have loved most of it. Strangely, her Pulitzer Prize-winning "March" was the one book I didn't much care for. The critics and I tend to have different tastes.
Bethia Mayfield, a young Puritan woman growing up on Martha's Vineyard has an uncommonly sharp mind. However, her society doesn't support the education of women beyond what little is necessary. Bethia hungers for as much learning as she can find, and she covertly listens every day as her minister father schools her elder brother, the possibly dyslexic Makepeace.
While wandering the island one day, Bethia encounters a young Wampanoag Indian. She's initially terrified because she has been taught the natives are "salvages," to use the vernacular of the day. However, a friendship sparks between the two, and she gives him the English name, Caleb. Caleb becomes more like a brother to her than Makepeace, and is her rock through the tragedies that befall her family. And Bethia is at Caleb's side as he makes numerous crossings -- geographically, spiritually and culturally.
In some ways, the story of Caleb is shadowed by that of Bethia. She struggles greatly with her given role in the Puritan culture. Raised to have an honest and good heart, she cannot reconcile certain questions of faith raised by Caleb and by the circumstances around her. Far more suited to the scholarly life than Makepeace, her only hope for learning is what she can glean as she works at the hearth. She seems to feel little hope that she will have anything other than a supporting role in the lives of the men who run the community. She has barely any frame of reference to build a belief that she could succeed on her own.
This is not to paint her as a weak person -- far from it. She has more spine and grit than many of the men in the story. And happily, she does find a man who appreciates her, partly because of the quickness of her mind.
Meanwhile, Caleb becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. He stands in a position to ease his tribe's own crossing from the world they knew, into the new world brought by the Europeans.
I found this book to be wonderful. While I tend to gravitate toward a book with a clear happy ending, I deeply appreciate the rare author who can tell a story with much sadness and give you an ending that is satisfying without being full of light and joy. Geraldine Brooks is adept at this, and ultimately, I believe this type of story with this type of ending is more likely to stay sharp in the reader's mind long after it is read.