“One Book, One San Diego” is a community reading program (partnered by KPBS and the San Diego Library) wherein San Diego readers select, read and critique one book en masse.
This year’s selection is Geraldine Brook’s Crossing Caleb, ostensibly the story of Caleb, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University, in 1665. I say ostensibly, because we know Caleb solely through the eyes and voice of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Calvinist minister, so Crossing Caleb is really Bethia’s story, in my opinion—which is fine. What’s really interesting is that Bethia tells her story (and, ergo, Caleb’s) in archaic, but gorgeously lyrical, 17th century language (and you can forget about finding the Kindle definitions for many of these now obsolete words, because our smart Kindles know they’re obsolete … I figured most of them out, though, to my satisfaction at least, by context).
I found the history fascinating, especially how hard Puritan life was—and I mean hard— and the clash between Calvinist and Native American cultures, and the—ugh—oppression of women in a patriarchal society. What I didn’t experience (and I think I was supposed to) was the depth and breadth of a twin-soul relationship between Bethia and Caleb. While the author discloses that information on the historical Caleb is thin, she had license, by virtue of this being fictionalized history, to depict a fully fleshed-out character. But what I got was a cipher. Bethia told me what Caleb looked like, and relayed words he spoke, but I never felt him, his essence, his draw, and so, while I knew and appreciated many other things in Bethia’s life—her yearning for education and her resentment toward her brother, for two—I rarely experienced Bethia’s Caleb. He remained elusive for me.
In light of the awe I have for Ms. Brook’s ambition and talent, and the fact that I was more than satisfied on so many other levels, I almost feel as if this is a niggling criticism—but, on the other hand, if this is to be a true review about the larger story of a woman touched by a man who defied the convention of his time and culture and voluntarily left his tribe for immersion in English education and religion, then that man had to have been super-extraordinary … I missed out on that oh-so-close opportunity to see and know him. I rated “Caleb’s Crossing” 4.0 out of 5.0 stars on Amazon.