Sunday, August 14, 2011

Caleb's Crossing

I've read four of Geraldine Brooks' novels --A Year of Wonder, People of the Book, March, and now Caleb's Crossing--and I can say that she doesn't just rework the same formula. She's taken me all over the world at all times from present times back through history. This book tells the story of a young girl Bethea, the daughter of a minister in the seventeenth century committed to educating and evangelizing the natives in the area. The title, I learned, by the end of the book, refers to many crossings, literal and figurative.

Brooks illustrates the range of attitudes toward religion, ethnic diversity, and especially women's roles in the time period. Caleb--an English name Bethea gives to the Indian boy who calls her "Storm Eyes" is the nephew of a wise man of his tribe and is destined to follow in the same path before converted to Christianity and educated by Bethea's father. The two first meet in the wild and become friends, learning each other's language, despite societal sanctions such a relationship.

The novel takes many tragic turns, not particularly unexpected in this time period--death in childbirth, shipwrecks, drowning, consumption. Bethea ends up serving an indenture at a school adjacent to the new Harvard College in order to pay for the education of her less-than-motivated or capable brother Makepeace. Despite her conditions, she seeks every opportunity to learn--Greek, Latin, Hebrew.

Although much of the attention in the book focuses on breaking down the walls of prejudice between the European settlers and the native Indians, I came away thinking of the effect on girls who are deprived of a full education. Ironically, here in the U. S., where education is readily available, it's easy to take it for granted (or to waste the opportunity). While the jury's still out on Greg Mortenson, he has certainly brought to the world's attention the importance of educating girls, which he says changes not just an individual but a family, a tribe, a community.

Note: I listened to the audio recording of the book, read by actress Jennifer Ehle. I found her enunciation of every article a a little off-putting. Maybe it's just my problem.


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