Recently submitted this for a university magazine as a Book Review. Thought I'd see what my YWS writing comrades thought of it.
Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing is a good book, and you should read it. Everything else will flow from these two ideas, and it is to these two ideas to which we will together return. My diction may be obtuse, and my reasoning circuitous, but if you take but two ideas from me, it should be these to which I first introduced you, and to which the following are merely supplementary.
The great strength of historical fiction is that it often side-steps questions of political histories and of verifiability and instead creates narratives open to the voices of the unheard that echo through the slipstream of modern cultural identity. In Caleb’s Crossing, the reader engages with the titular journey through the narrator, young Bethia’s, own frustrated crossing. The journey of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Native American, toward and through colonial tertiary education to become Harvard’s first Native American graduate serves as foil for Bethia Mayfield’s own often-frustrated journey. Some respondents have questioned the perceived oddity that Brooks’ novel is more about the vivacious puritan Bethia than the transcultural Wampanoag Caleb. In truth, Brooks’ choice to narrate through Bethia is, at its most cynical, a pragmatic choice that circumvents uncomfortable questions of the ownership of post-colonial narratives. Looking past such cynicism toward a more literarily analytic reading, Brooks breathes into Bethia the engaging and enduring image of a complex and convincing woman of her time, who speaks across the centuries to the modern reader through the dreams, aspirations and courage of an expertly crafted narrative character. Through her choice in narrative style, Brooks also makes excellent use of absent spaces, forgotten or misremembered stories and testimonies, and frustrated or inverted expectations, and Caleb’s transcultural journey certainly fits within her pattern of absent-presence as it relates to Bethia’s own frustrated aspirations.
The use of the first person narrative style in a piece of historical fiction is a bold choice and one that Brooks utilises in Caleb’s Crossing to drag the reader deep into a cultural setting with which they are likely both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Bethia’s narrative oversights are alternatively mocking, shocking, and appalling; this is a novel that makes great use of what is not written, and the use of the diary-narrative will frustrate and thrill the reader. Bethia’s alternatively stoic and sardonic attitude certainly infuriated me, just as it demonstrably humanised her. Brooks does not merely instrumentalise the psychology of her protagonist, but also the hermeneutic expectations and demands of her reader. That is to say, in their own way, the reader becomes just as much Brooks’ instrument as is Bethia, mystified where we are called upon to be mystified, thrilled where we are called to be thrilled, and so on. At times the morbid horror gnawing at my gut was exceeded only by my admiration for an author who could seemingly time the tenor and timing of my response to near-perfection. Through such a process, Geraldine Brooks certainly confirms the literary status she has won in her earlier works.
As a purely aesthetic experience, I found reading Caleb’s Crossing incredibly enjoyable. Although sensibly hybridised, the historically appropriate diction and elegant syntax mark a style both economic and deeply characterful. Through her mastery of the written word and the lively and complex relationships between her characters, Brooks engages with the cultural gulf between her characters in a manner both sensitive and critical. With a gentle touch, she introduces the animating spirits and gods of the Wampanoag, as well as the Christian God, as influential peripheral characters, challenging and influencing the expectations of self-realisation within the traditional bildungsroman.
Brooks’ language, rich with Christian and Classical allusion, reminds me of Ng??g?? wa Thiong'o’s A Grain of Wheat, and the recommission of language for that postcolonial project serves a purpose not entirely dissimilar to this instance. The use of Christian imagery, which is in both cases the language of the conqueror, manages to capture and interweave the deeply personal struggles of individual people with the turbulent struggles of the transcultural period. In Caleb’s Crossing, this language is used by Brooks when the young Caleb challenges Bethia’s faith in their early friendship, and the contest between alternative belief-systems often comes to a confusing but compelling fruition. Such language also frames the mindset of both Wampanoag and Puritan as being in the midst of spiritual warfare, and the skirmishes between the Wampanoag pawaaw and Bethia’s father, a Christian Missionary, are certainly reminiscent of the spiritual conflicts of other postcolonial works, including Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. Brooks’ language is both crucial and invaluable in reconstructing a worldview with which most readers will previously have had little understanding and less sympathy.
My attraction to historical fiction in particular has always been rooted in its nebulous and oft-contested educational value. That’s not a proud admission of mine, but there you have it. Like Wikipedia.org or Tvtropes.org, you feel like you’re learning, even if you will often have to find more reputable sources to actually justify this, that, or any other claim. In Caleb’s Crossing, Brooks takes a setting that for many of us would otherwise be unreachable; hidden behind the centuries and the morass of political, historical and cultural context. She takes this setting and into it she breathes life; the lives of flawed but human people living in an incredibly brutal time that challenges our notions of the equitable, the just, and the sensible. She takes this setting and she drags us into it and drowns us in it, until we see through eyes perhaps a little more capable of understanding worlds to which we are otherwise no longer privy.