Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks


Title: Caleb's Crossing
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Viking, 2011.  I listened to the Blackstone Audio version, narrated by Jennifer Ehle.

Summary (From Goodreads--I found this one too complex to neatly summarize.  I would have to say that the publisher did, too): 
The narrator of Caleb's Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island's glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe's shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb's crossing of cultures.

As is often the case with audio books, I was somewhat slow to warm to this.  I don't think that reflects on the books, as it happens almost every time (it's probably because the narration is perforce slower than reading, so it take longer to develop a sense of the book).  But this is a fascinating and complex story, and I was soon fully engaged with it.  For me, although the title suggests that the story is about the Wampanoag boy Caleb making the crossing between cultures, it was really about Bethia struggling with issues of faith and the ways faith was presented in her society.

That did set up a conflict for me, as I was continually put off by the restrictions of her society and of her religion, and wanted Bethia to rebel more completely.  Yet I think part of the brilliance of the story is that she does not act as we 21st-Century women want her to, but in keeping with her own time and self.  She can't quite make herself conform, but neither can she reject her God and run off to join the Wampanoag.

An additional narrative device that gave me pause, but in the end worked well (and I think might have been less confusing on paper than in the audio book) was the way in which the narrative is constructed as an account written out by Bethia at various stages of her life, so that her understanding of herself, Caleb, and their world changes through the story--that is, the narrator's understanding, not just that of the girl being narrated.  So the childhood parts are told from the view of the young teen, and later parts are narrated from greater and greater distances and more maturity.  I found myself set up time and again for the story to take a direction that it turned away from when the story was resumed often years later.

Caleb's Crossing is an impressive work of fiction which richly rewards the time spent immersing oneself in it.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed Caleb's Crossing  from my  library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."


  1. This seems like a tough one for me to get into. I found the reference to the Wampanoag Indians interesting. Last Thanksgiving my wife, a kindergarten teacher in Southern California, was teaching her students about this tribe. I was surprised that they would introduce something somewhat complex like this to such young students. I had to look up the pronunciation on the internet because my wife didn't know how to say the name. And I'd never heard of that tribe by name before. When I was in school they always just said "the Indians".

    Good review though.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

  2. Thanks for coming by, Lee! I have to confess that I read a lot more children's lit and genre lit (mostly mysteries and SF) than "serious" fiction, and I often have trouble getting into books like this. I puzzle over why a murder mystery should have characters with whom I can connect so much more than a prize-winning novel, but there it is. But once I got going with this one, it did grab me even if in part just to see if Bethia ever managed to rebel against her religion enough to make a life for herself.

  3. Fascinating what you say about the change of age of the narrator. I can see that being a huge development. I don't think I'd enjoy the book, though. Not my thing.

    1. it was a bit disconcerting, though part of that might have been the effect of listening, rather than reading--there may have been more cues that I missed. But it's interesting to think about writing a narrator who's view of everything changes as much as this one--I think the first part, looking at herself at age 12 or so, is "written" when Bethia is 15 or something. Her view of her actions at that point would be different, I think, than that of the old woman who finishes the story. But we don't get to revisit those, except obliquely.


We want to hear from you! Tell us your reactions, or whatever's on your mind.