Faith, Family and the Fledgling Flame of Feminism in Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

The truth is, you could set a book in a burger joint with a mildly entertaining protagonist who is on a date with…oh, say, her husband, and it would get me enough out of my current situation of wiping snotty noses after the final (here’s hopin’) winter cold, that I would probably keep reading. That, however, doesn’t give enough credit to how gripped I was by Geraldine Brooks' new novel, Caleb's Crossing, from the get-go (or to how badly my husband and I need a date). The thing is, this book pulled me into the wilds of Martha’s Vineyard before it even was Martha’s Vineyard and I was easily hooked. Add in a little prepubescent sexual tension between a Puritan girl by the name of Bethia (a.k.a. Stormy Eyes) and a so-called salvage boy, the title’s Caleb, and I’m going to keep turning the pages.

It was more than just setting or the (Spoiler Alert: unconsummated, and ultimately familial) relationship between Bethia and Caleb that kept me reading, enticing though they were. There are some big themes in this book. Brooks explores issues of a woman’s “place,” and faith—exploring both the Christian God and the multiple Gods of the Native American faith, love, home and family. The characters are believable and mostly likable, although, not to put too fine a point on it, Bethia’s brother, Makepeace, is an insufferable and selfish turd through most of the book and it is such a relief (Spoiler Alert) when he finely realizes he’s chosen the wrong calling.

While reading, I kept wishing someone would give Bethia a break, even herself. While she saw a definite amount of suffering and heartbreak, and had ample reason to mourn, she did find a few charitable people on her quest for knowledge and happiness who gave to her willingly and when she most needed help. Her lot in life could have easily been depressing, but there was a fire within her that I found inspiring.

It was fascinating, the differences in the way the Native Americans and the English folks treated the women in their midst. The English women were expected to live their lives protected in a “prison of their ignorance,” while an Indian maid was given the opportunity to become learned at Harvard pre-college. Of course, this Indian maid met travails of her own of a different nature and ultimately I don’t know that she was better off than Bethia.

The book is at once adventuresome and subtle and I liked that. I found myself earmarking pages because there were HUGE ideas on them quelled down to their smallest essence in but a paragraph or line. These little pieces of the story, it seems to me, could have been expanded into whole novels of a different sort in and of themselves. Let me tell you what stood out on some of my dog-eared pages:

  • The thought that an English woman might only have a chance to speak in public as a result of her execrating her sins.
  • How important it is the path we choose, and what that path will lead you to or from. How each path chosen is not, necessarily the last.
  • The importance of home and how it might define you. How leaving said home, for some, is like a little death, a purgatory until you can get back.
  • Finding yourself in the place in which God (or whomever) has set you.
  • The description of a woman who threw her own baby down a well and when brought to answer for the murder felt relief that such a burden was lifted --the question of whether or not she was among the gifted or the damned, because she now knew.
  • And lastly, I earmarked one page as a note to some future lover somewhere, perhaps a note to my son should he wish to win a lover one day. Try this: knock at her door in the early morning’s light with boughs of apple blossoms in your arms. When she answers said door, lift the boughs above her head, shake the petals down over her, and as she stands there laughing and reaching up for the petals as they float down over her, offer her a most coveted book from your collection. Just sayin’.

While Caleb’s Crossing was certainly gripping, I will say the passage of time often struck me as awkward. The narrator would jump ahead to a different time and then have to go back to explain how she got there and it came off a tad clunky. Also, too much time passed between Bethia’s entries and I felt somewhat robbed a couple times of information that lay in between. I guess, though, that’s a sign of good story, if you don’t want to miss any little bit.

All in all, Caleb’s Crossing is a good book, imaginatively told about a time I’ve read little about. Check it out!

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