BOOK REVIEW: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine BrooksCaleb’s Crossing
By Geraldine Brooks
Completed November 17, 2011

When Geraldine Brooks moved to her home in Martha’s Vineyard, she stumbled across a map of the island that showed the native Wampanoag people – and learned that one of them, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, was the first Native American graduate of Harvard College in 1665. This little historical fact spawned her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing.

Brooks opted to tell the story through the eyes of young Bethia, the granddaughter of the founders of Martha’s Vineyard and a devout Calvinist. Bethia, which means “servant,” was true to her name – she served her family, her faith and later her family’s legacy by taking care of Caleb and fellow Native American student Joel. When only 12, Bethia met Caleb in the forest, and they forged a friendship that lasted throughout Caleb’s life. She taught him English and Christianity; Caleb taught her about tolerance and his own faith. It was these early exchanges that set the foundation for Caleb’s academic success later in his life.

Bethia’s character is not based on a historical figure, but Brooks, through her detailed research, illustrated what life would be like for a young woman in 1600’s Massachusetts. Bethia was smart, but her religion permitted her from being formally educated. As a woman, she was concerned a commodity, used by her family to help get her less-than-brilliant brother into an academy. It was hard to read Bethia’s suppression as both a woman and scholar, but Brooks could do no else with her. It was an unfortunate sign of the times.

I love Brooks’ writing style and eye for historical detail – both of which are evident in Caleb’s Crossing. Admittedly, though, I was not as enraptured by this story as I was with Brooks’ earlier books. The plot didn’t move quickly enough, and I wanted to know more about Caleb and less about Bethia. I skimmed through some pages in search of some kind of “action” to propel the plot. I found it in bits and pieces, but overall, Caleb’s Crossing was a slow-moving story.

If you haven’t read Geraldine Brooks, start with her other books and delight in her writing. Save Caleb’s Crossing for a lazy day by the fire.

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BOOK REVIEW: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep by Curtis SittenfeldPrep
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Completed August 1, 2011

Lee Fiora decided at the tender age of 13 that she wanted to escape her hometown of South Bend, Indiana, and take part in an idyllic rite of passage – boarding school. Despite her parents’ lack of financial support, she applied to Ault School in Massachusetts and received a scholarship for her tuition. Prep is the story of Lee’s life as a boarding school student – an intriguing look at the socialization of high school students at a prestigious boarding school.

As a graduate of a small, all-women’s college, I found many of Lee’s experiences very similar: the traditions, hazing rituals, cafeteria food and dorm experiences all seemed like pages from my life history. Attending small, private institutions can be very alluring. Unfortunately, though, for many students, it can turn into a private hell.

High school is tough – the feelings of being left out, socially awkward and trying to second guess everyone’s motives weigh down most teenagers. Lee did all this and more. Lee was blessed with a wicked sense of humor but rarely showed it. She had a few good friends but remained aloof with most of her classmates. And when she finally gets the attention of her crush, Lee surrenders herself without a second glance. As I read Lee’s story, I commiserated with her plight as a scholarship student in a sea of wealthy kids but frowned at some of her mistakes. Sometimes, Lee was her own worst enemy.

And then I smiled, because that’s what being a teenage girl is all about: learning, growing and making mistakes. As Prep concluded, I knew Lee was a better person as a result of her Ault experiences.  This story was a great reminder of the journey teenage girls take to become self-sufficient women. If you’re a mom to a young girl or a young woman yourself, put Prep high on your reading list. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in this enchanting coming of age tale. (  )

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