Wednesday, May 2, 2018

CALEB'S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks

Historical fiction writers should take a few pointers from Geraldine Brooks.   I like Alice Hoffman’s works, except for her historical fiction, which bores me to tears.  And Hillary Mantel?  Ditto.  This novel may be more fictional than historical, as Brooks imagines the life of a little known Native American named Caleb who graduated from Harvard in the late 1600s.  She also makes the wise choice of narrating from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, a fictional character who befriends Caleb, as they both seek to know more about one another’s culture.  The storyline and writing are both excellent, and Brooks injects just enough early American language to make Bethia’s voice seem authentic without being challenging to read.   Although the novel has a lot to say about race relations, from an educational standpoint, Bethia’s plight is even worse than Caleb’s, as he has a chance at higher learning, whereas she as a woman has none.  In her own home and later as a scullery maid at the college, she learns Latin and Greek solely by eavesdropping.  Her brother is a lackluster student with no aptitude for languages, but Bethia, unbeknownst to her family, masters Caleb’s language as well.  The only learning that she is allowed to pursue is midwifery and herbal healing.  She does not, however, have to face the ostracism and bigotry that Caleb does.  They both do have to choose between family and opportunity, but Caleb’s choice strikes his people as a betrayal, even as most of the white men refuse to accept him fully.  He truly has to make his own way alone.

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