Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Caleb's Crossing: A Novel (Book Review)

A week or so ago, I sought book recommendations on my FB page ~ looking, in particular, for books set on islands.
I haven't tried to discern the appeal that islands hold for me these days.  Something to do with isolation, distance, water, life on the periphery of the mainstream, mainland, main culture . . . it probably wouldn't take long to figure out, but I'm not in a particularly self-analytic frame of mind these days.  I'm content simply to read.
One of the books recommended by a couple of friends, and the first one I found at the library, is Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.  What a marvel of a novel!

Set mostly on 17the century Martha's Vineyard, the novel relates the story of a small band of Puritan settlers, their interactions with the Wampanoags who already inhabit the island, and the journey of two of the young Wampanoag men to Harvard College, all through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of the local minister.  Able to carve out some free time and space for herself as she approaches young womanhood, Bethia explores the island and befriends, and is befriended by, the boy-turning-man whom she names Caleb.  Their lives, and the lives of their families and communities, continue to be interlaced with one another in ways made realistic and, by turns, enchanting and heart-breaking, thanks to the skillful pen of Geraldine Brooks.
Caleb, based on a historical figure of whom little is known, is brought to life in a vivid portrait of Native American skills and values little understood or appreciated by the Puritan interlopers, and Bethia, an entirely fictional character, is equally well drawn as a devout Calvinist torn between the world in which she has been raised and the one with which she feels a strong kinship.  The "crossing" in the title refers most obviously to Caleb's crossing from his Wampanoag life to his life as a student at Harvard, the crown of learning in the world "New" to the Puritan settlers ~ but many other crossings emerge, from literal and treacherous crossings across Nantucket Sound and Massachusetts Bay to the metaphorical crossings that each of the major characters experience as they traverse the precarious boundaries between cultural and gender norms.
As someone whose ancestral names can be found in the records of Nantucket, neighboring island to Martha's Vineyard, and as someone who spent two summers on Cape Cod and read a great deal about New England during my school years in Massachusetts and Rhode Ialand ~ and who, like Bethia Mayfield, was delighted to discover the poet Anne Bradstreet when I was a young woman myself ~ Caleb's Crossing was of particular interest to me.  But I think it would be an intriguing, even page-turning, read for anyone ~ one of those books you can hardly bear to see end.


  1. Great review. I'm so glad you identified so deeply with this novel. It's on my "reread" list.

  2. I am glad that you enjoyed the book. I have read all of her novels but particularly loved this one and The People of the Book. I was pleased to learn that she has a new book coming out later this year.

    I look forward to reading more book reviews and adding to my list!