Caleb’s Crossing

By: Geraldine Brooks
Fiction
2011
Subject Matter: Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck; Wampanoag Indians; Massachussetts; Martha’s Vineyard; Indian college graduates; Indian scholars; United States
Rating: 3/5

Caleb's Crossing

I was given this book as a Christmas present a few years ago by an especially beloved aunt of mine. I highly value her literary opinion, but I have to admit I was wary of this one.

My first thoughts upon reading the back cover were that it would be a typical, cheesy Christian lit book. (I have nothing in theory against Christian lit; it’s just that it’s so often trope, poorly-written, and repetitive.)

I was mightily wrong on that score.

Caleb’s Crossing is a fictionalized version of the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.

All right, you’ve already got me hooked. I l.o.v.e. me some historical fiction.

And I have to say, the first 2/3 of this book were wonderful, delightful, entertaining, interesting. Think Pocahontas and John Smith, but with a gender reversal and without the Disney love story.

Don’t be deceived by the title; while this story certainly involves Caleb’s crossing (through cultures… get it?), it is not about Caleb per se. The story is told from the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, a completely fictional protagonist who befriends Caleb as a child and deals with those repercussions for the rest of her life.

My problem with this book is the end. I read the first two sections in about two days, guzzling down the foreign setting, the foreign context, the glimpse into a foreign life, the beauty of the island, the naivete of youthful friendships. The third section of this book, however, takes place a few decades after the main plot and is mostly a looking-backward, nostalgia-filled, wildly depressing, drawn-out conclusion to what was already concluded. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to insist upon a happy ending. I just could’ve done without the “hindsight is 20-20 lecture.”

I have to say, I’m pretty sure Geraldine Brooks did her homework. I’m no Native American scholar, but it didn’t feel romanticized, and it certainly wasn’t Anglophilic. This book taught me something, it entertained me, and it left me conflicted right along with Bethia.

It’s got a little something for everyone: a coming-of-age theme, rape, love, internal conflict, disease, cultural clash, feminism, secrets, sin, pride, shipwreck, death, birth, overcoming obstacles. It is much more than one man’s struggle to assimilate into a new world order, but it’s certainly that too.

This book is not going to change your life or kickstart a passion in your inner self or knock your socks off with it’s literary wit. But I think the vast multitude could do with a read of this book, if for nothing else than it offers a voice we don’t often hear from.

 

*****

 

If you like books like Caleb’s Crossing, here are some suggestions:

(for feminist themes)

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

(for classics on culture clash)

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Woza Albert! by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon

(for a focus on Native Americans)

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

The Truth About Stories by Thomas King

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

(for more by Brooks)

March by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

 

Coming up:

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron

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