Monday, January 30, 2012

Caleb's Crossing

I'm an admitted bookworm.  I grew up devouring books almost as fast as I could get my hands on them (my pace has slowed since then).  My family members and good friends know that I love giving book recommendations, and I love discussing books I've read.  So I thought as part of my blog I'd do a post on each book I finish.  I'm not bold enough to call it a "book review," just my own little ramblings.

I just finished Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.  If you haven't read March or People of the Book by Brooks, they're both fantastic.  March won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a few years back.

Caleb's Crossing has a very intriguing premise.  I was shocked that it was based on fact.  "Caleb" refers to Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, one of the first American Indians to graduate from Harvard.  What stunned me was the year he graduated: 1665.  I had no idea Harvard even existed so far back, much less had American Indian students in that era.

What is fresh about this book is that it studies the convergence of American Indian and English societies in the 1600s without falling back on the simplistic "brutal English, peaceful Indian" storyline.  Caleb's "crossing" references several things, but one of his "crossings" is from his native society into English society, while most often books on this sort of topic focus on the English who are brought into American Indian culture.  There's obviously nothing wrong with that story, English learning from Indian, but it's just been done so many times already.

What isn't fresh about this book is the main character, who surprisingly isn't Caleb but is an English girl named Bethia.  Bethia is your typical strong female lead: ahead of her time, intelligent, strong willed, etc.  Again, there's obviously nothing wrong with a character like that, it's just that she starts to feel indistinguishable from every other strong-female-lead, everyone from Eliza Bennett to Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

At first the writing style was off-putting to me.  Brooks tries to keep the language typical to the time period, with outdated vocabulary and phrasology.  But after a few chapters I stopped noticing it, even though there were plenty of words that even my Kindle dictionary app couldn't define for me.  It does feel very authentic.

All said, I enjoyed the book.  I especially liked reading the Afterword, which explains the facts behind the fiction.  I don't think it's possible to tell a story of the American Indians of the 1600s that has a happy ending, of course.  Brooks tried to stay true to the facts of the real life characters, and it makes the ending all the more bitter.  But it is eye-opening, and really made me think deeply and in a new light about the history of the American Indian people.  It's a great book for a book club, especially a church book club.  It has a lot of interesting musings on religion, and is clean reading too (probably about a PG rating).

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