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Ms. Magazine
Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
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Caleb's Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks

Too Modern History

A review by Karen Joy Fowler

In Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks once again shows her prodigious gift for the vivid evocation of times long past. Fans of her earlier work, Year of Wonders (set in a 17th century plague-town), People of the Book (about the Sarajevo Haggaddah) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning March (a story of the Civil War, inspired by Alcott's Little Women), will find the same acuity and narrative power here. This new novel takes place in the mid-1660s, partly on the island we know now as Martha's Vineyard and partly at the college in Newtowne known now as Harvard.

In one type of historical fiction, the writer tells a familiar story, only with better research or perhaps a revisionist angle, and the line between fiction and nonfiction is subtle. In another, the surviving data for a story is scant and the telling must be primarily a work of imagination. Caleb's Crossing is of this second kind. Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was real -- a Wopanaak Indian who graduated from Harvard in 1665. But the book's narrator is entirely fictional: Bethia Mayfield, daughter of the island's Calvinist minister, secret childhood friend of Caleb and witness too much of his life.

As always, Brooks manages to tell a story both sober and luminous. She makes her point -- while relations between European settlers and native tribes ranged from well-meaning to murderous, the outcome was often the same -- but she does so gently. Horrific events are acknowledged and alluded to, but rarely shown on the page.

Among the novel's many pleasures are its descriptions of the natural landscape. From Caleb, Bethia learns the Wampaontoaonk words -- "the true names," she calls them -- for the wild things around her, though when the story moves to Newtowne, Brooks shows how quickly a land can be despoiled. A bright young woman, Bethia is also hungry for a world that is denied to her -- the world of books. She eavesdrops, first on her brother's lessons, later on lectures at the college where she works in the kitchen.

Bethia is not an implausible creation, but she may be too comfortable for the modern reader. It's so easy to identify with the young girl who, more than 300 years ago, rode her horse heedlessly on the beach, sneaked off for a secret friendship with an Indian boy and was instinctively sensitive to the power of the Wopanaak ceremonies. Even her religion, pervasive and restrictive as it was, doesn't really separate her from us. Caleb says, "So many things I loved, I have had to learn to hate," but the internal conflicts resulting from Bethia's faith are of a lesser, more manageable sort. This unimpeachable narrator makes the book an effortless read but may also slightly diminish a primary pleasure of historical fiction -- the reader's sense of spending time in someplace very strange.

Karen Joy Fowler is author of the novels Sarah Canary and The Jane Austen Book Club and the short story collection What I Didn't See.


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