Happy Mother’s Day! (Now Mail Me the Damn Book!)
You will stroll by this book in the store. Or read its cover and be uninspired. You couldn’t possibly be interested in this book, right? It’s about an indian tribe on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600s.
Yeah, you’ve been craving one of those, right?
Ignore that impulse. Please. Read this book.
Which I did for really only reason–it was written by Geraldine Brooks. There is no secret here: I am a huge fan. (Proof from past BookSnob post). It was Mother’s Day and well, it’s hard to find something my mom hasn’t read. It was a safe choice: my mom put me onto March most recently, and now that I think about it, was also the one who had recommended our book group read Year of Wonders. I knew it would be a hit if I could just get into the mail in time.
It wasn’t just a hit, it was a home run. My mom loved it, my sister raved about it. Jane Smiley gave it the NYT review of approval. I had book envy. But no worries, because Mom mentioned it was coming my way via mail. But then it got passed to a series of neighbors and arrived in my mailbox months later.
We should discuss momentarily the insanity of this, really. I buy a hardback book, a gift, for $25 which got at least 4 reads in the midwest before returning to me by ‘book rate’ third class mail–(I am pretty sure my father is one of 7 people in the country who still uses this, such a cool, retro frugality) and I get my own gift back at a price of $6.35 to them. Nice. Not to mention that I do own a kindle and could have downloaded the book in the interim while I endured everyone raving about the damn book that was with Nancy, then Jan, then blah di blah and Mrs. Yoo Hoo and then the inevitable oh-we-can’t-get-to-the-post-office-because-we’re-golfing. It’s inexplicable why I waited for a gift I had given to come back to me. Except the sheer delight of opening a book in the mail or maybe the communal nature of the experience.
Anyway, I digress.
Caleb’s Crossing not only does not disappoint, it impresses. Fabulous.
Geraldine Brooks is proving herself as one of the strongest storytellers and serious fiction writers in our country at the moment. How is that for bold BookSnobbish proclamations! All of her stories are based on going deep into a single fact or situation in history and researching in painstaking detail the historical context to spin her fiction around. No doubt this incredible skill was honed when she served as one of the first female foreign correspondents for the Wall Street Journal before she set the literary world alight.
(BTW, you go Geraldine girl.)
This time the story is based on a single kernel: Caleb, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1864. The story is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, daughter to the minister of Great Harbor, Martha’s Vineyard. They become friends–both taboo and a great irony as Caleb comes from the Wampanoag and worships many gods and the wonder of nature and Bethia is raised to be seen not heard and adhere to the rules of a strict Calvinist upbringing. What they share is a deep intellect and a desire for knowledge. Which it would seem neither could pursue, as a native indian and a woman. It’s fascinating to watch how Caleb gets this education at Harvard, though he didn’t ask for it and only achieved this through the ‘benevolent’ missionary work of Bethia’s father. And yet Bethia wants this more than anything and repeatedly has to repress this desire even to allow her dimwitted brother the chance.
If the thread around intellect and education is a good one, the narrative around religion is even better. As 12-year-old friends, exploring beaches and forests and all nature has to offer, Caleb casts a doubt (unintentional or not) for Bethia on the God she believes in by simply worshipping beauty and other gifts in a different way. The book is fraught with scenes about the natives struggling with customs of their past and the threatening and alluring missionary work of their new white neighbors. Though the discussion takes place in the 1600s, we are not frozen in time. The issue of racial and religious superiority fills our newspaper pages daily. It challenges your own intellect to determine what is really ‘right’.
Like the inside cover, I am not sure I can do this book justice. But suffice it to say that Geraldine Brooks has delivered a great reprise to her Pulitzer Prize winner, March. The storytelling is superb, the historical context perfectly painted and the intellectual challenge satisfying. Really very difficult to put down.
This book has communal roots, so the first one to comment below, gets this pooch in the mail (book rate!).
Let’s let this one travel as far as the book snobs can make it go.