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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book review: Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, narrated by Jennifer Ehle (audio)

I love Geraldine Brooks's books. I heard her speak at the Southern Festival of Books about her latest novel and I was annoyed I hadn't read her last one yet so I decided to listen to the audio on the drive. What pushed me over was seeing that the narrator was Jennifer Ehle, best know as Elizabeth Bennet from A&E's P&P. At first I was a little confused by an English narrator for an American novel, but as it's set in the 1660s, it makes sense. The colonists then still would have spoken with an American accenobviously much mroe talented girl not only be overlooked, but be actively scoffed at for wanting an education.t, even the ones not born in England.

In this novel Brooks takes a real-life figure, Caleb, the first Native American to go to Harvard, and creates a fictional character to tell the story through, Bethia.Bethia lives on "the island," known to us as Martha's Vineyard, with her family. Her father is a local minister trying to convert the area "Indians" (one of the nicer terms they use for the native peoples.) Caleb is a native boy that Bethia meets. Bethia, gifted with languages, had been eavesdropping on her father's lessons in the native tongue, and picked it up easily, so she could converse with the boy. He, likewise, has a way with languages and quickly picks up English from her. They are friends for a few years, although they know no one will approve, so they hide their friendship. Years later, Caleb turns up as a boarded and student in her house as his English skills have been discerned and he is to be taught, to see if he, and another Indian boy, Joel, can get up to speed enough to go to a prep school and then to Harvard, alongside Bethia's brother, Makepeace. When Bethia and Makepeace's father dies, nearly penniless, Bethia must go with Makepeace as an indentured servant, to cover his tuition and costs. Bethia would have much more appreciated and utilized the lessons, but as a girl, that's impossible. Still, she manages a pretty good education from her eavesdropping and she knows that her mind is an important thing to her and she can't be happy in life unless she finds someone who appreciates her intellect.

I was surprised, given the title, that Caleb wasn't the narrator. In fact, he's not in large chunks of the book. It truly is Bethia's story. And it is frustrating to sit by and see the obviously much smarter sibling not just be overlooked, but be openly prevented from learning, even if that was perfectly in keeping with the time.Some of the historical elements are amusing--Harvard was imposing with its brick 2-story building and it has all of 33 students in its four years, which is impressive to them. The narrative voice felt very true and honest. Ms. Brooks really has a way with making historical figures feel real and relatable, without making them anachronistic.

While fiction on audio often doesn't work for me, this one did. I felt completely immersed in this world and I was rooting for Bethia, and for Caleb, the whole way.

I checked this audiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

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