Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.
Students in my classrooms quickly learn that I enjoy working historical fiction and other non-traditional sources into my courses. There are any number of reasons for this strategy, but chief among them is to give students a different type of experience with history story-telling. Yes, some students get this type of story from watching history films, but my point is I would like students to get this type of narrative through reading.
Geraldine Brooks gives readers ample opportunity to explore story telling of the type that I believe can resonate with students of many ages. Not only is her narrative clear, but on several occasions, the visuals are so brilliantly crafted that you can “see” and sense the kind of colonial community she is attempting to bring to life. A fine example of this skill appears early in the text:
The labor was such that father trembled all over afterward….So it is, out here on this island, where we dwell with our faces to the sea and our backs to the wilderness. Like Adam’s family before the fall, we have all things to do. We must be fettler, baker, apothecary, grave digger. Whatever the task, we must do it, or else do without (5).
There are some who might not enjoy certain stylistic choices made by Brooks. Written in first person narrative, Caleb’s Crossing also makes an attempt at capturing the rhythms and alternative word choices of 1600s era New England. Not unlike watching a film in which English is the language, but the dialect or accents is quite foreign at first, the words and patterns become steadily more familiar. Still, this style seems a big stilted in some sections.
The last is but a minor complaint however. I found the book equally effective for creating a picture of the time period portrayed as M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and stronger than Caroline Cooney’s The Ransom of Mercy Carter, both of which I have used in the classroom. For younger students, some of Caleb’s Crossing
may explore themes that are difficult (eg, miscarriage, implied accusation of rape etc), yet the book’s value far outweighs any potential controversy.
Brooks provides the reader with a helpful afterward discussing the actual historical figures who inspired her writing, as well as commenting on a variety of sources and research. The inclusion of strong female and native characters are welcome as both Bethia and Caleb reflect more truly than most interpretations, the varieties of people extant in New England. We meet real historical figures along the way and indeed Caleb himself is based on a real person.
In addition to exploring the daily life of English settlers and native people, Caleb’s Crossing effectively reveals thoughts on the spiritual world of these “accidental” neighbors. Brooks lets readers better understand this particular past through descriptive narrative, creating characters we want to know more about, and by making language and words an important part of the story. Brooks clearly grasps that culture is embedded within language, and we can see that as Bethia and Caleb come to know each other and through the important use of Wampanoag words. It is a novel well worth reading, and should be considered a useful source to give students a readable and accurate portrayal of the time period.