True to form, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks is a well-written glimpse into the hardships of the past. Moreover, it involves a story that does not get much exposure but one that reflects today’s culture even as it picks apart the past.
Ms. Brooks has an excellent eye for historical detail. Just as in her previous novels, in Caleb’s Crossing she brings the early colonial period back to life with her attention to the minutest aspect of life in the colonies. Readers get a clear understanding of the Puritan mindset, wherein one’s sin and the question of salvation are uppermost in the mind, as well as the harsh life they live. Ms. Brooks makes sure all readers understand that Bethia’s life is not an easy one and that those moments she steals to ramble across the island are as rare as they are precious.
Of particular interest is the portrayal of the relationship between Native Americans and English colonizers. She presents the relationships with insight, recognizing the racism inherent in their interactions. However, she also tries to show how hidden the racism was; not everyone thought the Native Americans were inferior simply because of the color of their skin. At times informative and other times infuriating, Caleb’s Crossing recognizes the tragedy that became colonial and Native American interactions even as they started with (racist but) good intentions.
Having never heard of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, Ms. Brooks quickly drew me into his story with her attention to detail and skill of writing. I not only wanted to learn more about Bethia’s fight for some semblance of education and happiness but also to follow Caleb’s path to Harvard College and beyond. The tragic ending is not necessarily surprising given the time period but it still manages to pack a punch. It has been a long time since I read any historical fiction that took place outside of the Victorian era through World War II, and Ms. Brooks always impresses with not just her writing but her choice of subject as well. Her ability to weave fact within fiction always brings the past to life.