Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

This was hands down one of the best books that I have read this year.   Geraldine Brooks has absolutely outdone herself with this novel.

Caleb's Crossing mostly takes place in 17th Century Martha's Vineyard and 17th century Cambridge (most notably, Harvard Yard).  Bethia Mayfield is a teenage Puritan whose family is quite wealthy by colonial standards - her grandfather is the founder of the island itself and had emigrated there in order to establish a haven that was outside the purview of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bethia is an intelligent young woman, who learns Hebrew, Greek and Latin seemingly by osmosis - she listens in on the lessons given to her older brother and learns not only the ancient languages but the language of the native American tribe also inhabiting the island. Bethia also has an aptitude for wandering and, during her wanderings of the island, meets a young Native American man who is eventually adopted by her family and renamed Caleb. Caleb is tutored extensively by Bethia's father and eventually "crosses" into Anglo-American culture, thereby earning the title of the novel. We follow Caleb, Bethia and her brother, Makepeace, as they travel from the island, to prep school in Cambridge and, eventually, to Harvard University.

I loved this novel.  I loved Bethia quite frankly.  On some level, I connected to her internal struggle. She was continuously struggling to answer the question of how to exist within the narrow confines of what society dictated that she be, even though she was so much smarter and empathetic than society would allow her to be. For instance, she was so much smarter than her brother, Makepeace, especially with regards to the classics. However, while her brother got the opportunity to at tend prep school and, potentially Harvard,  Bethia was indentured to the dean of the prep school in order to enable her brother to become educated.  Bethia also was particularly empathetic and friendly towards Caleb and the other "salvages," often considering them her friends and often viewing them sympathetically and as friends and family; however, the majority of the society around her viewed them with repugnance. What I also particularly loved about Brooks' narrative is how authentic it seemed - Brooks wrote the novel in colloquial speech, never once breaking from the speech patterns and written patterns that a woman in Bethia's socioeconomic status would have engaged in.  This level of authenticity went a long way in contributing to the richness and powerfulness of the novel itself. In this way, I felt like I was really inside of Bethia's head - hearing and experiencing her thoughts as she herself was thinking them.

This book is beautifully and engagingly written and a must read for all.

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