Caleb's Crossing/Geraldine Brooks: Reflections

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Several years ago I had the privilege of reviewing March, the book that ultimately won Geraldine Brooks the Pulitzer Prize, for the Chicago Tribune. I hadn't yet attempted to write historical fiction. I did not know the perils. I merely found my way inside Brooks' story and emerged with this impression:

It is harder, sometimes, to review a glorious book — to convey its power and influence without relying on suspicious adjectives.  Good books can be slotted, characterized, explained; great books often cannot.  I believe Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, March, is a very great book.  I believe it breathes new life into the historical fiction genre, the borrowing-a-character-from-the-deep-past phenomenon, the old I-shall-tell-you-a-story-through-letters tradition.  I believe it honors the best of the imagination.  I give it a hero’s welcome.  And that should be enough, somehow, but let me try to explain it....
In time, I would write my own history-indebted books. I would come to an earned understanding of how difficult it is to both honor the past and make it relevant and pressing for modern readers. One has to make decisions about authenticity, completeness, recorded truth, the shaping of language, the admission of now to then. One has to yield to the novelist's first obligation, which is to craft a moving, timeless story.

With Caleb's Crossing, Brooks' newest book, this far-ranging author finds her inspiration in a spare record concerning the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. We meet this young man in the wilds of mid-seventeenth-century Martha's Vineyard. We follow him through his troubled negotiation with two religions and languages. We come to know him, most of all, through Bethia, a Puritan minister's daughter, who discovers Caleb along the beach and dares to continue to meet him there—privately and at great risk to her fortunes and reputation. Ultimately the two travel to an early version of Harvard University, where the air is fetid and the quarters are close and racism and inequity are present evils.

The story is told by Bethia herself, in notes she sets down throughout the years. Our view of Caleb's life is restricted by Bethia's own necessarily limited encounters, but Bethia herself is a magnificent creation—fully alive to her times, utterly capable of capturing the mist along the shore, on the one hand, and the fetid, close quarters of mostly male instruction in early Massachusetts, on the other. Brooks gives us the language of the time, the odd chores, the strange antecedents. We believe we are there, but we are glad we are here, turning Brooks' care-invested pages.

A quieting passage. Bethia lies by the shore:
I lay down again and closed my eyes against the glare, listening to the sound of the surf as it arced all around me, the thrumming fall of breakers, the shush of the receding waves. Every now and then I felt my skin cool slightly as a cloud passed across the sun. From time to time a gull would voice a rich cry, high and urgent.


Caroline Starr Rose said...

This is on my list. I recently read THE PEOPLE OF THE BOOK and have THE YEAR OF WONDERS sitting on my shelf.

I've been toying with the idea of writing a post about historical fiction. Might I use your paragraph about the boundaries/considerations of HF on my blog?

Beth Kephart said...

It's a tricky business, this historical fiction. It needs to feel relevant, urgent right now, while being true to then.

You are welcome to post this on your blog, Caroline. Thanks for asking.

Sarah Laurence said...

Great review! I saw Brooks had a new novel out and found the premise appealing. I'm a Harvard grad myself and find Native American culture most fascinating.

I was waiting for a review from one I trust. The only question is do I buy the hardcover book or the cheaper ebook?

I just sent my WIP to my agent this morning so I deserve a treat. Says the book junkie.

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