A couple of years ago a friend handed me a copy of People of the Book: A Novel
, the international bestseller by Geraldine Brooks, thinking I may enjoy it. She was right. Beautifully constructed, the novel follows a rare book expert as she conserves one of the earliest Jewish manuscripts ever illustrated, the priceless Sarajevo Haggedah. I immediately read Ms Brooks' other novels; the Pulitzer prize-winning March
, which picks up the thread of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's Penguin Classics Little Women
, and Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
, the story of a housemaid-turned-healer when the London plague is transported by a bolt of cloth to her mountain village. I would highly recommend all three of these novels.
Born and raised in Australia, Geraldine Brooks now lives on Martha's Vineyard with her family, where her most recent work, Caleb's Crossing is set.
A Brief Synopsis of Caleb's Crossing
Bethia Mayfield is a precocious and curious young woman growing up within a Puritan colony on Martha's Vineyard in the 1660s. At twelve she meets Caleb, her intellectual equal and son of a native chieftain. They form a secret friendship that eventually draws each into the unfamiliar world of the other. Bethia's father is a Calvinist minister respected by his peers and the native Wampanoag of the island. His mission to convert the 'salvages' results in Caleb's conversion and cultural crossing. As a consequence of unforeseen and calamitous events, Bethia risks all she holds dear to help Caleb in his quest for knowledge.
Although narrated by the fictional Bethia, the novel was inspired by the true life figure of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wôpanâak tribe of Noepe (Martha's Vineyard). Born circa 1646, Caleb was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. In the novel's Afterword, Ms Brooks explains that Bethia's distinctive voice and vocabulary are meant to capture the class, upbringing and beliefs of her times. As a result, expressions which are rightly deemed offensive today are applied to Native Americans. Although I appreciate Ms Brooks' reasoning and explanation, none was necessary as her respect for the people and place she writes of is clearly evident to those with eyes to see.
Through her insightful renderings of Bethia, Caleb and the other three-dimensional characters that inhabit the story, Ms Brooks, as she has done in her previous three novels, brilliantly lays bare a time long past for her readers.
My Final Word
In truth, I planned to purchase Caleb's Crossing when it was first released in 2011. I cannot tell you why I chose to wait. I knew it would be a stellar read, so methinks I held off for a time when such a book was needed in my life. Something akin to saving the red Smarties for last. Much like the candy-coated chocolate sweets, this book melted in my mouth.