Questioning Self and Soul in Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

"Who are we, really? Are our souls shaped, our fates written in full by God, before we draw our first breath? Do we make ourselves, by the choices we our selves make? Or are we clay merely, that is molded and pushed into the shape that our betters propose for us?"

Geraldine Brooks, the narrator in Geraldine Brooks' new novel, Caleb's Crossing, asks these questions as a Puritan settler on Martha's Vineyard in 1660. Those questions are not, however, specific to her time and place. Rather, these are questions that many of us grapple with still.

And they are questions that confound every other character in Caleb's Crossing -- most notably Caleb as he crosses from his Native American world to the one created by the English settlers. Their struggles to find answers form the backbone of Brooks' gripping novel.

Friends, I don't use that word lightly. Caleb's Crossing truly is a gripping book and one that I had a hard time putting down, although I do admit to a slight disappointment with the last third of the book. Where the first two sections of the book were full of richly drawn characters and events that had me alternating between anger and tears, the last section seemed to tie up loose ends a little too neatly. Until the very end of the book, that is, which was quite touching.

Circling around a true historical event -- Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck becoming the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College -- Caleb's Crossing shows us a world that is at once bleak and beautiful, full of promise and full of despair.

Written as Bethia's confessional, we are pulled into her search for her self during a time when women were not expected or allowed to pursue "scholarly matters." Bethia desperately wants to learn the lessons that her dull brother and, later, the Native American's Joel and Caleb, are taught by her father. But time and place don't allow for that. Instead, Bethia struggles to reconcile her adventurous and questioning self with the role that she -- and others -- believe that God has decreed for her. Along the way, she is sold into indentured servitude to advance her brother's study and suffers loss after incredible loss, which I won't reveal. But she also uncovers significant truths that are as relevant today as they were remarkable then.

While Bethia may not have found the answers to all of the questions she raised about the nature of her own self, she does find some semblance of peace with the path her life has taken. But it is a peace that, as she says, is "a dissonant and tragical lament." Fortunately, Bethia's lament makes for an entirely compelling story.

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