Book Review of Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing
“He is coming on the Lord’s Day. Though my father has not seen fit to give me the news, I have the whole of it.”
So begins Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Geraldine Brooks in her latest effort — Caleb’s Crossing, a novel that any historical fiction writer will savor, both for the pure joy of reading it and for the instructive elements so evident in every page. As she often does, Brooks takes a kernal of history and creates a wholly inhabited flashback for the reader, in this case recreating what is today known as Martha’s Vineyard. The reader flys back to the 17th century and sees the wild, unspoiled beauty of the place, hears the sound of distant voices — both Indian and “English” speakers, and smells the sea air and the herbs of the island, as well as the sweat and dung of early Boston. It is time travel at its finest.
The kernel of history that Brooks begins with involves the Caleb of the book’s title. He was the first Native American to earn an undergraduate degree from Harvard College in 1665. The Austrailian-born novelist — a former foreign correspondant — moved to the island in 2006. In getting to know her new surroundings, she was shown a map with sites of significance that included a reference to Caleb. She learned that during the 17th century, there were 3,000 Wampanoag Indians on the island and just 20 English families. Brooks drew on colonial documents, as well as oral and written history to research the novel, doing what I’ve learned all good historical fiction writers do: she did some research to sketch out the story but began to write while research was still underway. She believes in letting the narrator tell the story.
Though the novel focuses on Caleb, the son of a Wampanoag chieftain, it is narrated by Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister who is intent on including the local Indians among his flock. Bethia’s voice is so clear that I was hooked on the first sentence. Bethia and Caleb meet when she is just twelve years old and their lives remain entwined even when Caleb enters Harvard, though Brooks wisely stays true to her time period by stopping short of any romantic entangelments between the two. What connects the main characters is that they are both so intellectually curious and, as Brooks herself put it in an interview this week on WHYY, so “willing to take huge risks to gain knowledge.”
As a writer of historical fiction myself (including fiction set during this period), I was especially fascinated by how Brooks use language to take us back in time. The trick is to use the flavor of the period in the narrative and dialogue but not to overdo it. As Brooks said in the interview: “Use language sparingly or you will frustrate your reader.” This is especially true when you write historical fiction for young people.
Interestingly, Geraldine Brooks reads what she calls “kids’ fiction” a lot. She says you can’t beat it for plotting. So true! How wonderful to hear one of our very best American novelists tout the merits of children’s fiction! Whatever you write or usually read, Caleb’s Crossing is one book you shouldn’t miss.