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Book Discussion at Epiphany: "Caleb's Crossing" by Geraldine Brooks

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The month of May found the Epiphany Book Club tackling a writer beloved by its members. Geraldine Brooks has written several novels, the book club previously read People of the Book. This time around we read her most recent work Caleb's Crossing. Like all of her stories this one is a historical tale which uses a real individual/event as the background for the novel.

In this case that is Caleb who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. The story takes place in Martha's Vineyard (which was not known as such during the time of the story) in the 1600s and is told from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield. She is the daughter of a pastor who is attempting to convert the local Native American tribes to Christianity. She meets Caleb one day while out on the island alone and their friendship changes both of their lives.

Brooks is very adept at painting a compelling portrait of people and places. Right from the start you feel as if you have been transported to this small island with the early settlers. The character of Bethia, our story teller and heroine, is well done and complex. She isn't typical of her time in that she is curious and open towards the Native tribes in their area but she also comes with the baggage of her upbringing that holds her back from fully giving in to the ways of these other people. So while this gives her a reason to meet and become friendly, even familial, with Caleb it doesn't feel forced or unrealistic for that time. The author also does a splendid job of showing the limitations put on women during this period as well as the hypocrisy of the men in charge. The novel spans Bethia's life from her youth into adulthood so we are treated to some real insight into her development as a woman in the 17th century.

The members of the group all agreed that Brooks is wonderful at providing historical context for the story. We learn a lot about life during that time both personally for the characters and the larger culture. The biggest criticism was presented by one member who felt the story could have used a perspective other than Bethia's. She felt it limited how much we really learn about the other characters, specifically Caleb. There was also the fact that Brooks writes the stories based on a specific event or person which therefore restricts how much development there is within the construct of the world she is presenting. Despite these two issues, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the novel and it is highly recommended.

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