Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

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This, set in Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts in (mainly) the 1660s, had the potential to be a very interesting book. The two main characters were Bethia, a very intelligent young woman eager to learn in a Puritanical, patriarchal society which sought to confine women to domestic roles, and (based on a real person) Caleb, son of a Wampanoag chief, who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. It was far more about Bethia than Caleb, incidentally, and the title was misleading in that respect, but there were so many interesting themes – the relations between the Native Americans and the English settlers, the funding sent from England to educate Native Americans at Harvard, the role of women, life in what was effectively a theocracy (don’t get me started on the evil that is organised religion), the classical education of the times … OK, it was all a bit serious and “worthy”, but, given the subject matter, it had to be.

However, the author suddenly dropped all the storylines and then jumped forward to over 50 years later, gave a brief summary of what had happened to the main characters in the meantime, and that was that. I’m not exactly sure what the author was trying to achieve with this book, but it didn’t really tell Caleb’s story because it concentrated too much on Bethia, and it didn’t really tell Bethia’s (fictional) story because it suddenly jumped from when she was 17 and struggling to make a big decision to when she was 70. It promised a lot, but it didn’t really deliver. What a shame – it could have been very good indeed.

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