THE MONDAY BOOK: Caleb’s Crossing by Gwendolyn Brooks

Caleb’s Crossing is, when pressed into a small nutshell, the novelization of what happened to the first two Indian scholars to attend in the late 1600s the college that would later be named Harvard. The ultimate fate of these two lads is true; how it happens is fleshed out in Brooks’ magical storytelling, through the eyes of Bethia, an English settler on the island that will become Martha’s Vineyard.

Let me start by saying Brooks had a 50-50 rating with me before Caleb’s Crossing. I LOVED her novels People of the Book and Year of Wonders, but couldn’t work my way through March (the Little Women father’s experiences in the Civil War) or, surprisingly enough Nine Parts of Desire, her ethnographic study of Muslim women. Which is weird because I’m an ethnographer and teach Islam and Women’s Studies, so I should have been able to get into that. I’m going to try again in a couple of years.

Sometimes books just have to hit their particular reader at a right time. And to my mind, Geraldine Brooks is a word wizard. I loved Caleb’s Crossing as much as her other two, and for similar reasons. When Brooks recreates a world, she does it with such authority, accuracy, authenticity that you can’t see the edges. Her characters aren’t anachronistic for their time.

Plus, her vocabulary rings true. She’s just pure dead brilliant at making ancient words tumble so gracefully from her characters’ mouths, and has the added artistry of being able to explain them without doing what my friend Mike Samerdyke calls “an information dump.” Try this paragraph, from when Bethia and Caleb (one of the two native scholars) meet:

“He walked through the woods like a young Adam, naming creation. I learned to shape my mouth to the words—sasumuneash for cranberry, tunockuquas for frog. So many things grew and lived here that were strange to us, because they had not been in England. We named the things of this place in reference to things that were not of this place—cat briar for the thickets of vine whose thorns were narrow and claw-like; lambskill for the low-growing laurel that had proved poisonous to some of our hard-got tegs. But there had been no cats or lambs here until we brought them. So when he named a plant or a creature, I felt that I heard the true name of the thing for the first time.”

See how fast she establishes background, setting, mood? You can hear birds, smell forest. And you get the tensions right away. She’s equally adept at the relationship between Puritans and Animists. Because the book is observed from one woman’s point of view, she can often discuss intense themes and cultural conflicts with a light touch, almost stepping sideways to hit them full on.

I look forward to rereading Nine Parts of Desire next year sometime, when my head is in better shape to take it in. And I thoroughly recommend, for those who like historic fiction, enjoy lyrical prose, or love a good armchair passport experience, Caleb’s Crossing. Make a cuppa, curl up, and plan to be gone about five hours.