Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks, Viking, 2011, 300 pp
The plot (or is it the theme?) of Geraldine Brooks' latest novel could be "life sucks and then you die."
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed reading it because Brooks is a good storyteller and a competent writer, if a bit careful and self-controlled.
Set in the mid 1600s during the pioneer days of English Puritans, it is based on the true story of how a Native American youth, Caleb, became the first of his people to graduate from Harvard. The tale reeks with adversity: "good" versus "bad" Puritans; white man versus native; male versus female; human versus the elements; and more. The minister father of Bethia, the heroine, even pits his one God against the magic and pantheism of Caleb's uncle, the medicine man.
I have a horror of attempts at religious conversion; the idea that a person must believe in a certain god in order to attain eternal life just makes me cringe and always has ever since I was a five-year-old in Sunday School. But it is a prevalent practice among human beings and Brooks does well using it for tension without too much of a judgmental tone.
Bethia is one of Brooks' signature females. She is put through the wringer and holds up for a good long time. I kept thinking about The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton, though Bethia is more Anne Hutchinson than she is Mrs Winthrop. As in all her other novels, Ms Brooks made me care about her heroine and kept me interested in her suffering, which was huge, and her triumphs, which were puny by comparison.
Bethia first meets Caleb when they are children and he opens her eyes to new ways of looking at life and the world, while she teaches him to read. That time of innocence, when a child begins to look outside her family and upbringing, when we have that certainty that anything is possible and are clueless about the dangers of trying to change the status quo, is one of the shining sections in Caleb's Crossing.
I don't think it is a spoiler to say this tale is a tragedy. Surely we are supposed to see that these characters were trail blazers and opened doors to those who came after them. But at the end of the book I did not feel uplifted. I felt like, no matter how hard someone tries, life sucks and then you die.
(Caleb's Crossing is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)