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Merle

Merle

Caleb's Crossing - Geraldine Brooks There are a fair number of books out there now about women in colonial New England. If you like the topic and haven't tried them already, Anya Seton and Sally Gunning have done good work in the same area. Of the ones I've read, though, Caleb's Crossing is unquestionably the best-written, in terms of its lyrical writing style and its fascinating detail.

Despite the title, this book is really about Bethia Mayfield, a young woman who lives on the island we now know as Martha's Vineyard. It's the 1660s, and Bethia chafes at the restrictions her society (and her family) places on women; she loves learning, but her father stops teaching her at age 9, insisting that she knows all she needs to and shouldn't be more educated than her future husband; she also loves the outdoors, and in roaming the island she meets and befriends Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, who eventually becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking, this all sounds awfully familiar. And it's true; if you read much historical fiction (especially if you read much YA as a kid) you've probably read books with similar storylines and themes. But you probably haven't seen it done this well.

So, about the stuff that makes this book stand out. The plot is quite interesting, with a few unexpected turns; the characters are complex. Bethia is believable as an exceptionally bright teenager; her perceptiveness as a narrator keeps her fresh and engaging. The structure also works exceptionally well: most of the book is told through Bethia's writings at the time, which keeps the story feeling immediate without bogging it down in a restrictive diary format, while the last 45 pages are written at the end of Bethia's life, allowing her to jump backward and forward in time to great effect.

More to the point, Brooks does an excellent job evoking the setting and time period; I loved the sensory detail and the details about how people lived (and for better or worse, she certainly captures the fragility of life at the time). She's clearly done her research, and uses it to fully immerse the reader in the setting. I feel like I've been to Martha's Vineyard, to Master Corlett's school and to the early Harvard College. Wow. And Brooks's writing style is so lyrical and evocative that it's simply a pleasure to read.

Also, I loved the use of colorful period vocabulary. For instance: "But that night the task seemed so friggling to me that I had to concentrate on every stitch. I noticed mother glance at me from time to time as I sighed and fidgeted and tried to hide my cackhanded work." We don't need to have seen those words before to know exactly what Bethia means.

I'll add that the characters' relationships are complicated. I especially liked the way Bethia and Caleb's relationship is handled; it doesn't go where you might think it does, and because there's a limit to what Bethia's likely to understand or write about, readers are left to ponder exactly what's going on there. And this is a book rich in themes: race relations, women's roles in early colonial society, and the conflict between Puritan Christianity and animism, are all explored. Of course, this is a book written in the 21st century, but by my judgment the author does a good job of presenting characters as they might actually have been (Bethia is ahead of her time in many ways, but that in itself doesn't make her unrealistic, and she's a convincing character).

Two things hold me back from giving 5 stars without the caveat. The first is that, at times, the characterization is uncomfortably black-and-white. Caleb doesn't seem to have any flaws (nor does Joel); Makepeace has nearly every flaw known to man, from stupidity to laziness to, apparently, sadism. Both manage to remain complex and interesting despite that--and Makepeace isn't irredeemable in the end--but there were moments when it seemed a bit much. Second, the end to Bethia's tale is disappointingly conventional. (This is the one place where Gunning does a better job.) But Brooks does so many things right in this book, and does them so well, that these flaws do little to take away from the book's excellence.

Overall: highly recommended!