Summary: A richly told story of early Puritans and the struggle against the New England wilderness and the missionary outreach to Native Americans.
This is my second Geraldine Brooks novel in as many months. The first book, People of the Book, supplements the known story of a real Jewish prayer books as it moves through European history. In Caleb’s Crossing, Brooks takes the small fragment of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard and creates a rich story around the known characters.
What was most interesting to me is that the entire books is written as a ‘Day Book’ or journal by a fictional woman (girl at the start of the book.) When I was in grad school I took an Early American Lay Piety class. In that class I read segments from a number of women’s journals. Many of them were recounting their sins and lives in order to prepare themselves for the possibility of death. Many of these were written just before childbirth because 1 in 5 women died in childbirth at this time.
One of the complaints of the book is that Brooks tries to make it feel authentic. So it is an old language. I listened to this in audiobook, so maybe it would have been different in print, but I did not have a problem with the language. Not all of it is appropriate to the time and culture, there are some words that are used anachronistically. But on the whole I liked the effect that she was going for.
The basic story is about Betheia Mayfield is the daughter of a Minister growing up on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1660s. Her father is working to convert the Native Americans on the island. Betheia is gifted in language and learning and she picks up the Native American language of the area by listening to her father learn it. She also picks up some Greek, Hebrew, and Latin as her brother and others are taught by her father. But her father stops teaching her when he realizes that she far surpasses her brother.
As a young teen she meets Caleb. He is highly placed in his tribe but the same age as she. They spend a year together playing secretly as they have time. Betheia teaching Caleb to read, Caleb teaching Betheia about the forest, and his language and culture. Eventually both age, and no longer have as much time to see one another. Caleb goes away on a rite of manhood and while he is gone much of the tribe dies of small pox. Caleb comes back, and once it is discovered that he can speak and read English, he comes to live with Betheia’s family.
There is some tragedy in this book. Much of the book is concerned with the role of women and Betheia’s desire to do more and learn more. There is a strong sense of the Puritan theology and ethics. From my understanding, it is pretty accurate, although I am not sure that the feminist ethic of the books is realistic.
Regardless this was a good book and well worth reading. I thought the audiobook was very good, and may be better if you are concerned with reading unfamiliar spelling and usage of words.