Caleb's Crossing: A Darned Good Puritan Novel

BlogHer Review

In 1665, the first Native American graduated from Harvard College. Rather than speculating on that story, Geraldine Brooks creates a work of fiction involving the characters that may have surrounded this young man's life. At the center of the story is Bethia, the daughter of a minister, torn between her understanding of the world as she sees it and her father's teachings. Born and raised in a society which believes itself "civilized" and having a strict religious code, Bethia finds her desire to be educated, her tolerance for the native Wampanoag beliefs, and her friendship with Caleb to be at odds with everything she's been taught.

As Caleb becomes educated in Scripture, Hebrew, Latin and Greek, Bethia becomes educated in life, suffering hardships which she can only assume that are the result of her own sins, sins which she know's Caleb's people would not consider evil.

The story delves into the two worlds: Caleb's world of nature and traditional Wampanoag religion and medicine, and Bethia's Calvinist society. While Bethia is able to recognize the enviroments produced by her society, the polluting factories and the closely spaced houses which leave little room for growing food as "unwholesome", she feels that this is the price of her faith and her civilizations, two things which go hand in hand. She considers Caleb's views that the world is not so black and white, but cannot understand how he can reconcile Christianity and "civilization" with the aspects of his indigenous culture which he still honors.

The book is written as a series of memoires which Bethia presents to the readers. As such, it's written in what the author feels to be the linguistic style of the time, however, the language does at time slip between modern and older usages, making it feel more like an affectation rather than the true voice of the fictional narrator.  Where Hawthorne and Miller have written pieces that reflect contemporary themes of social belonging and demand set in Puritan New England that have been extremely engaging, Brooks has produced a book which sets a much slower pace with a great deal less insight.

The book is written in three sections, each representing a different stage and age of Bethia's life and each repeating the same themes, but Bethia shows little growth throughout the book, so trapped is she in her Calvinistic upbringing. Even the small steps she does take in accepting a broader world view, however, takes her beyond the bounds of her society. Most of the story itself takes place during the second, and longest section of the book. The first part is backstory, but totally fails to engender any empath for Bethia on the part of the reader due to the slow pace and cool detachment with which the character presents her younger self.

If you like historical fiction of this era, if you haven't read classic presentations of the topics, and if you enjoy a slower paced story with a main character whose worst flaw is that she once danced in the woods, this is the book for you. I've found the character to be too bland, too unaware of her own growth and maturity to be engaging. Perhaps if Bethia had truly had conflicts or character flaws to the degree she believed she had, she would have made a more interesting heroine. If being "plain" is a Puritan virtue, then this is a darn good Puritan book.