Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Publisher/Format:Viking Adult (2011), Hardcover, 320 pages
Characters: Bethia Mayfield,  Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck
Subject: relations between Native American and English settlers; religous bigotry
Setting: Martha's Vineyard, and Cambridge Massachusetts 1650-1720
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: ARC from Viking Press

Geraldine Brooks write so well, and she chooses very interesting and often obscure topics from history to fictionalize.  When I finished this I had a feeling of satisfaction in that I was impressed with how she handled the topic of women in this time period: how they were often uneducated; given in marriage or indentured to others by their male relatives with often no say on their part; how often they died in childbirth.  But....

But ...the book was supposed to be about Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a young Indian brave who is brought to live with the family of Preacher Mayfield so he can be Christianized and educated. He eventually went on to become the first Native American to receive a degree from Harvard.  His friendship with Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of the family forms the framework of Brooks' tale.  Despite the title, the story is really about Bethia, about women's struggles, and about the less than honorable way whites treated Native Americans.  It is a story of two cultures clashing, of religion being used to justify murder, rape, slaughter, and torture.  The publisher's blurb touts this as a tribute to Native Americans who went to Harvard, and I guess we're supposed to feel grateful that Harvard established an "Indian College" back in the late 1600's.  The fact that this was a cash cow for Harvard (money being sent from England from the wealthy bible societies) makes it less celebratory in my mind.

The book was released to coincide with the Harvard commencement ceremony last week during with Tiffany Smalley, evidentally the first member of the Martha's Vineyard tribe since Caleb received her degree.  It only took 350 years!!!

The fictionalized account of Indians "crossing" leaves the reader pondering.  What was crossed?  Who crossed?  It's impossible for me to celebrate this crossing without a great deal of sadness that it cost so much in human dignity, life, and respect.  The story is well worth reading, if for no other reason than to encourage an on-going discussion of the lives described, and the nuances of religious wars.  It certainly highlights that we are still facing many of these same issues today, and with all the education we've acquired, we still don't seem to have come very far.

In spite of all this, I do think this is Brook's best work, and I think I've read them all. Many thanks to Viking Press for the opportunity to review this and for the giveaway copies awarded last month.

1 comment:

  1. Sad that this is a story about something other than advertised. So many injustices in our history and I would prefer that the story concentrate on the Indian because that's an injustice I'm not so aware of. But then I studied women's history in college and others might benefit from knowing the women's story too.


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