three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
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0

missing imageGeraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her novel March (4 of 5 Stars May/June 2005). She is also the author of People of the Book (3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2008) and Year of Wonders (2001).

The Story: Geraldine Brooks has made a specialty of building novels around fascinating fragments of history where the scholarly trail has gone cold. In this case, the hook is Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Native American who graduated from Harvard College in the 17th century but whose subsequent life story is virtually unknown. Brooks imagines Caleb's life from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister on the island that would come to be called Martha's Vineyard. Through Bethia's eyes, we see how these two young people pursue friendship, learning, and fulfillment despite the restrictions of their cultures and circumstances.
Viking. 320 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780670021048

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[Brooks] does what she has done in her earlier novels ... which is to merge her research with her intuitive sense of the daily lives of both real and fictional individuals. ... This is intimate historical fiction, observing even the most acute sufferings and smallest heroic gestures in the context of major events." Matthew Gilbert

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It is an old and often hackneyed story line--the brilliant savage helped by the civilized white woman. Brooks sidesteps such stereotypes by creating characters that make sense in the time to which they are relegated." Robin Vidimos

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Brooks creates a vivid backdrop, as she does so well, of the 17th century life and morality that Bethina and Caleb inhabit. With sleek ease and captivating storytelling she shows how these unlikely friends adjust and adapt to what unfurls before them, crossing boundaries and bounding over what borders they may as they go." Amy Canfield

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Brooks ... has a true gift for immersing readers in a different time and place--a knack for authenticity that only feels easy because it is so well done." Ellen Akins

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The triumph of Caleb's Crossing is that Bethia succeeds as a convincing woman of her time, and also in communicating across centuries of change in circumstance, custom and language. ... Beautifully written from beginning to end, it reconfirms Geraldine Brooks's reputation as one of our most supple and insightful novelists." Jane Smiley

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"With warmer characters, Caleb's Crossing had the potential to be a classic. Instead, it is merely another superb work of historical fiction from Brooks." Toby Berry

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Emotionally powerful and rendered with beautiful and persuasive period detail, the book chronicles the transformative friendship. ... The final third of the novel falters, delivering several devastating plot points that arrive too quickly for the reader to fully absorb." Paula McLain

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Geraldine Brooks, once a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal ... writes about early America the same way she wrote about Sarajevo and the Middle East, which is to say very well." Paul Chaat Smith

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"This reimagining of 17th century New England by a 21st century novelist feels like a reimagining of 17th century New England by a 21st century novelist--in ways both helpful and harmful. ... It's disappointing, though perhaps fitting, that Brooks' crossing into colonial America proves as unsteady as Caleb's into the world of the English." Abigail Deutsch

USA Today 3 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, while Caleb's Crossing is beautifully written, it reads like a puritanical mash-up of Avatar meets Dances With Wolves." Deirdre Donahue

Critical Summary

Early Colonial America is a period most people know only through pageantry--whether through the legends surrounding Christopher Columbus, Pocahontas, or the first Thanksgiving. The key disagreement between critics about Caleb's Crossing was whether its story also fit this mode or achieved something greater. Some, pointing to Brooks's mastery of historical detail and 17th-century language, touted it as a highly realistic historical novel. Others, without necessarily dismissing Brooks's skill as a writer, felt that there was more of the 21st century in the characters and the arc of their stories. These reviewers did not dismiss the book entirely: they simply felt it was not on par with Brooks's earlier historical novels.