Having enjoyed People of the Book, I looked forward to Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel Caleb’s Crossing (Viking, 2011). Historical fiction is a hot genre these days, but Brooks’ writing stands head and shoulders above much of what is published as a result of her choice of topics, the depth of the research she puts into each book, and her use of language.
Brooks has become one of the world’s finest authors by dint of story topic selection, historical research and use of language. March, her novel about the American Civil War, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2005. Having moved recently to Martha’s Vineyard, she discovered the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University. Brooks decided it was a tale worth telling. But in Caleb’s Crossing, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck shares the stage with Bethia Mayfield, a young woman who is both a central character and the vehicle through whom Caleb’s story is told.
Brooks could have written this story from Caleb’s point of view–why and how he ended up at Harvard, how he was treated there, etc., but she arrived at a more creative solution when she decide to write the story from the point of view of a young woman whose family was one of the first settlers on Martha’s Vineyard. Bethia Mayfield meets Caleb in his “natural” state––a young man at home on the island where his tribe had lived for generations. Through her eyes we follow the path Caleb takes––first learning the language and ways of the English and then their religion. The latter leads him to enroll in Harvard and become the school’s first Native American graduate.
Caleb’s Crossing rises above so much historical fiction, which often reads as if people with 21st century sensibilities had been dropped out of the sky into the past. Brooks incorporates the language of the time into the story without sounding forced or artificial. I cannot think of a single contemporary writer who is Brooks’ equal in that regard. Consequently, we not only come away from Caleb’s Crossing with an understanding of what life was like in 17th century colonial America, but, because Brooks carefully studied the period of her tale, we learn about the settlers’ religious and intellectual life as well.
My only criticism of the book is that the final section lacks the tension of the rest of the story. I would have preferred it had Brooks found a way to finish the book at the point of its dramatic climax. That she felt obligated to add that final section suggests an ambivalence as to whose story she was telling. Having started out to tell Caleb’s story, it seems she found the full story of the life of her fictional female settler to be equally worth telling.