Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks has written a fantastic new novel, Caleb's Crossing, that is one of the better novels of 2011. 

The novel is set in the late 1600s on Martha's Vineyard.  It is the story of Caleb Cheeshah-teaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.  In the story, Caleb is befriended by Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of an English proselytizing minister. Like Caleb, Bethia, an exceptionally bright, young woman, searches for knowledge and must find a way to access it.  They build a lifelong bond.

The title of the book is a bit misleading.  The story, which is Bethia's diary from different phases of her life, is really about Bethia struggling in a male-dominated world to overcome the blind obedience demanded of women.  Bethia first must take on her deceased mother's obligations, which include tending to the home and raising her infant sibling.  Then, she is indentured as a housekeeper (i.e., looks a whole lot like slavery) to support her brother.  Throughout her life, Bethia thirsts and searches for worldly knowledge.  While listening to Bethia's quest through her diary, we watch Caleb cross from his Native American culture to the Christian culture and the costs he must bear. 

The root of the story is true. There was a Caleb Cheeshah-teaumuck who graduated from Harvard.  However, very little is known about his story.  Brooks creates a gorgeous story and hangs it on this narrow historical framework.

I would add Caleb's Crossing to my list of top books for the year so far.  It is an excellent book for discussion.  The writing is gripping.  Brooks writes the story in the language of the 1600s.  Much like Twain's classics, once you adjust to the difference in language, the story flows. This book should have broad appeal. Brooks also paints a lively picture of Martha's Vineyard.

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