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A Special Niche in Outstanding Historical Fiction: A Review of Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Caleb's Crossing

The best historical fiction takes historical fact and pulls us in by creating interest in characters of the time period. Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is one of the most versatile historical fiction writers of today. Her talent lays in takes a slice of history and creating a world we long to enter. Imaginatively conceived and exquisitely written with compelling characters, Caleb’s Crossing will command your attention and demand your respect.

1660. Great Harbor (now Martha’s Vineyard), Massachusetts. Bethia Mayfield anticipates the arrival of Caleb, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, to her home for tutoring with her minister father. Unperceived by her family, she and Caleb, who share a love of nature, have learned each other’s languages and formed a friendship over the past few years. Her brother and Caleb, the first Native American to do so, enter Cambridge to prepare for studies at Harvard. Bethia feels at a loss when she leaves Martha’s Vineyard to become a servant in the headmaster’s home. Her love of learning prods her secret vigilance in listening to all the lessons.

Integral elements of the remarkable Caleb’s Crossing are joy in learning, unexpected death, heartbreaking starvation, and the ever-present bond between Caleb and Bethia despite all hardship and prejudice against their bond. Knowledge equals power in this unique book. Caleb says, “And since it seems that knowledge is no respecter of boundaries, I will take it wheresoever I can…if necessary, I will go into the dark to get it.” Intrigued? You will find yourself reading in a leisurely fashion to fully savor the evocative prose. “And then I woke, on my cold pallet in this stranger’s kitchen, with ice winds from the cracked window fingering my flesh and a snowflake melting slowly on the fireless hearth.” The characters are absorbing. The soulful narrative voice of Bethia has an ethereal quality. She is haunted by guilt, taking upon herself blame for a smallpox outbreak, a death during the delivery of a baby—all because of her secret relationship with Caleb. Caleb yearns to be a Pawaaw, or healer of his people. For him, knowledge respects no boundaries. He glows with appreciation of life, zest for learning, curiosity and love of nature.

The release of Caleb’s Crossing coincides with an important Harvard University event. This May a degree will be awarded to Tiffany Smalley, the first Martha’s Vineyard member of the Wampanoag tribe since Caleb to graduate. An official portrait of Caleb will be painted in commemoration. 

To what does Caleb cross? Read Caleb’s Crossing to find out. In the book, Ms. Brooks highlights this question: What are the effects of attempting to Christianize an already spiritual, established civilization? Her own opinion is not expressed. Instead, she tells Caleb’s story with forthrightness and clarity, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions.

 I thank Viking for providing a copy. The opinions expressed unbiased and solely that of the reviewer.Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmonthttp://www.hollyweiss.com