Caleb's Crossing: An Unexpected Historical Fiction Surprise
By Rita Arens on March 29, 2011
I wish Caleb's Crossing had started on page 21. Here's why: As someone not accustomed to the language of the 1600s and not enamored with the treatment of women at that time, I don't think I would've stayed with Caleb's Crossing until it hit its stride -- for me on page 21 -- had I not committed to reading it for this book club. And that would've been a sad, sad thing, because I really liked the book, despite my struggle with the language and the jarring transitions.
Caleb's Crossing is full of expressions like "Goody So-and-so" and "sitting at board" (that means eating at a table, I discerned finally) and "such was the doggeral that year." The narrator, Bethia, whom we follow throughout her life, speaks as one would were one living on an island in New England when the U.S. was still a colony and relations with Native Americans fraught with confusion at best. However, once Bethia met Caleb (her name for a Native American living nearby who becomes her best friend), it gets very interesting very quickly.
Bethia and Caleb reminded me a bit of Katniss and Gale in the Hunger Games trilogy, if you're familiar with that, although this is definitely literary women's fiction and not young adult fiction. But we all love a star-crossed-friendship-maybe-based-on-sexual-attraction, don't we? And Bethia/Caleb provide star power in that area. Throw in Bethia's strong sense of 1600s feminism, the clash between colonial Christianity and Native American polytheism and Harvard when it had a total of 33 students? Good stuff.
To boot, once I grew accustomed to everyone eating at board, I was able to appreciate some beautiful writing on Brooks' part. Take these sentences:
"It had crossed my mind, as I stood to speak my confession, what a remarkable thing it was that the rare time a woman's voice might be heard in our church was when she was execrating herself."
"My words rattle against each other like the last beech leaves on a winter branch, and though a hard wind scours the forest, it cannot free them from the boughs; it will not lift them upward into the wide white sky."
I had not previously read Geraldine Brooks, though now I'd like to read more of her work. If you love novels of ideas, you'll like this -- even though it's not a beach read.
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