Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Here’s the thing about Geraldine Brooks (because I’m totally qualified to comment on Geraldine Brooks, obvs) and Caleb’s Crossing (which, according to many aggrieved Goodreads members, should be called Bethia’s Crossing) –

01. Stating the obvious but she knows how to write historical fiction. I reckon Brooks tests every single word for authenticity – it’s meticulous.

02. Even the emotions her characters are feeling are ‘historically appropriate’ (tricky, right?) and yet, she manages to create these wonderfully strong females who both make a mark on their time and offer something for the present.

Is it ever thus, at the end of things? Does any woman ever count the grains of her harvest and say: Good enough? Or does one always think of what more one might have laid in, had the labor been harder, the ambition more vast, the choices more sage?

03. She’s clearly a research-nut but happily there’s not a hint of info-dumping.

04. She reminds us of the most deplorable parts of history. In this case, I pondered the parallels between Native American and Indigenous Australian history (spoiler: British settlers don’t look good in either version).

…grandfather could hardly have expected the fine points of English property law to count for much to some three thousand people whose reputation, prior to our landing, had been ferocious.

05. She can write about nature and landscape like nobody’s business. Her descriptions of the ‘the island’ (now known as Martha’s Vineyard) are superb.

Those hot, salt-scoured afternoons when the shore curved away in its long glistening arc toward the distant bluffs. The leaf-dappled, loamy mornings in the cool bottoms, where I picked the sky-colored berries…

06. And in writing about the past she is actually telling us about the present (and what a shit-show we’re creating) –

“Can you not hear? Boots, boots, and more boots. The shore groans under the weight, and yet more come. They crush the life from us.”  … He had scooped up another handful of sand and stared at each grain as it fell through his fingers. “You are like these. Each a trifling speck. A hundred, many hundreds – what matter? Cast them into the air. You cannot even find them when they land upon the ground. But there are more grains than you can count. There is no end to them. You will pour across this land, and we will be smothered. Your stone walls, your dead trees, the hooves of your strange beasts trampling the clam beds…”

So why did I find Caleb’s Crossing a little bland? A combination of things – there didn’t seem to be stand-out moments in the story; the final ‘reflections’ were lazy; and I never truly warmed to the characters.

2.5/5 Not my favourite Brooks.

I let him eat a slice of treacle pudding and a dish of raspberries.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 27): Belfast 11°-17° and Melbourne 4°-15°.

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8 responses

  1. I’m in the process of writing about authors I dislike and Brooks is quite close to the top of my list. I made notes (lost now) on a reading of Caleb’s Crossing 3 or 4 years ago for a year 12 student. I think I found Brook’s treatment of the principal relationship unrealistic, but then, I don’t like historical fiction

    • I’ll look forward to that post! (very curious to see who makes that list)

      I think the principal relationship would have been ridiculous if any feelings had ‘progressed’ but Bethia’s ‘sensible’ marriage choice, eased it slightly.

      As with any historical fiction, I’m always slightly uneasy about what is fact and what is fiction. I know historians love debating the idea that all of history is interpreted in some way and bias is unavoidable but when reading historical fiction, you’re acutely aware that some of it is simply not true. In this case, I felt I was in reasonably safe hands with Brooks (and did a little reading once finished about the main elements of the story, that being Native Americans on the island and at Harvard) and although elements of the story were interesting, I never really engaged with Bethia.

      • I respect that you like Brooks, I wish I remembered the book well enough to be able to respond intelligently. My post is actually a book review but I got sidetracked into starting it with a rant. Still, I’m always surprised at the popularity of lists so I might spend some driving time coming up with a few more names.

      • Rants and lists are always fun to read!

        I wouldn’t put Brooks on my ‘must-read’ authors list although I enjoyed March and (at the time) thought Year of Wonders was amazing (have never re-read). What I admire is her research and the fact that she mentored Hannah Kent simply because she heard that Kent had said if she could have anything, she’d have Brooks be her mentor. That’s a nice story.

  2. I never really like Brooks books and yet continue to read them. Hmm. I too remember being quite taken with the Year of Wonders but all the others I have read drive me nuts while I read the – something in the voice of the writing I think. Haven’t reflected on it as much as wadholloway!

  3. I have a love/meh relationship with all of Brooks’ books (trying saying that quickly after a glass of wine!)

    Your list of good point is excellent & sums up the good points perfectly, but you’re right there’s also something that goes amiss with each book.

    Ian McEwan is another author I have a similar thing going on. I usually end up reading their latest book even though I know it will be flawed. I wonder if he will end up on wadholloway’s list?

    Perhaps its the flaws that attract us?

  4. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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