Book Reviews

Caleb’s Crossing to Nowhereland

Or When Titles Frustrate Expectations

A book club is a great way to expose yourself to stories and subjects you wouldn’t choose for yourself. This is the first selection I ever read for my book club and it got mixed reviews from my group. I expected Caleb’s Crossing to be about an Indian (cover art) named Caleb (title) who changes the life of a religious girl named Bethia (marketing blurb) due to some sort of crossing (title). It’s safe to assume the theme of the book will be about the boundaries we live with and accept and those we fight to cross. Sounds good…if this was truly what the book was about. Let’s explore what happens when a title leads the reader to a land of lost expectations…

Calebs Crossing Title - Bethia

Many times we find out about a book because of a friend. With bloggers and the internet we have billions of opinions we can solicit for any topic, but especially books. If we don’t chose it at random from the shelf of a book store or library, then we heard about it from a trustworthy source. We go into a story expecting it to be good but with no basis on the real work. This means we are getting our opinions second, third and fourth hand.

Many of the readers in my book club fell into this category. The book was good because they were told they should like it. They’d read People of the Book and this is the same author after all. She has a pedigree and was a New York Times bestseller so they’d be crazy NOT to enjoy everything she’s written. Every googled article reviewing the book backed up this thinking, reporting how admirable it was to include Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Wampanoag Indian to graduate from Harvard!

It. Has. To. Be. Good.

My friends said so. Suzy Q from the grocery line said so. My bloggers said so. My husband’s boss said so. Newspapers and magazines said so. Even the internet reviewers said so!

Those of us who weren’t nearly as satisfied shake our heads at this thinking. We only picked the book up because of these opinions. We also took into consideration the expectations aroused by the title, marketing blurb and cover art. Before the popularity of bloggers telling us what to think about the books out there, we had to judge for ourselves. A cover would catch our eye. We’d read the title. If we enjoy stories with the same subjects and themes the title suggests then we’d read the marketing blurb. If the marketing blurb confirmed our expectations then we’d consider buying it. If it intrigued us even more then we’d most certainly make the purchase. If not we’d put it back down and try the process all over again with another book. Because we like to make up our minds for ourselves this portion of my book club went into Caleb’s Crossing with specific expectations:

#1 and most important we expect Caleb to figure prominently in the events that happen to Bethia in Great Harbor and Cambridge.
#2 through Bethia, we want to experience how Caleb’s identity crossed from that of an Indian to that of a Christian.
#3 we want to understand how Bethia’s choices for her life were effected by the part she played in Caleb’s journey from the Indian world to the white Christian world.
#4 we want to feel and sympathize with how Bethia’s life is forever changed by Caleb’s death.

At the heart of these expectations is a deep and enduring relationship between Bethia and Caleb. Let’s discuss whether this connection endured through the story.

Does Caleb figure prominently in Bethia’s Life?

Her mother played a major role in Bethia’s desire to be educated. She could tell that her mother desired Bethia to have at least physical freedom in her youth even if she couldn’t give her smart daughter educational freedom. Bethia desired educational knowledge because of her father, a minister whom she admired for his life’s passion with converting the Indians. Her brother, Makepeace, was of a very strict religious mien and inspired in her philosophical curiosity as to the Indian’s gods and whether they were as valid as her own god. These are all things Caleb could have been instrumental in inspiring in Bethia, but there was no need – her family played that role way before Caleb came along.

The writer engendered in the reader this feeling that Bethia desired Caleb in ways beyond friendship. Much like I wanted the writer to inspire me to feel love toward Solace, she expertly lead us to believe Bethia had feelings for Caleb. Nothing came of these feelings. Nothing. Not an admission in her thoughts or feelings of guilt. She acted like she doth protest too much at her brother’s accusations of lust toward Caleb but she never actually admitted even in her personal diary that she felt any such way. The writer beautifully showed us Bethia’s feelings without coming out and telling anything but forgot to tell the character she felt something.

The people important to us effect our actions and our motivations. Caleb’s presence in her life didn’t even cause a slight shift in Bethia’s motivations. In fact, they remained the same throughout the entire book, put in place from when she was a girl influenced by her family. What’s the point of showing the reader feelings that the protagonist holds if they never resulted in anything? And especially if they had nothing to do with Caleb’s Crossing.

What was it like for Caleb to go from Wampanoag life to Christian life?

Calebs Crossing Title - CalebIn the first section the writer sets up Caleb as this playmate that exposed Bethia to this alternate way of living. She is taught his native language by communicating with him and in turn teaches him English. They buddy, buddy around and act as each other’s companion and point of contact to the other’s world. Or rather I should say Bethia acts as a motivator for Caleb to enter the English world. We are never shown or told of any effect this interaction with Caleb has on Bethia. She never has any motivation to go outside of the boundaries taught and inspired by her family. Her mother is the one who influenced Bethia’s desires for education.

And we can only assume Bethia effected Caleb’s decisions. They never talk about his motivations, we are never given a single hint about them. We assume between Bethia and her father Caleb was won over. We do get some of the physical difficulties that the Wampanoag went through to make the transition but none of the emotional journey is explored. Here is this girl who has first hand contact with one of the Indians and we get nothing emotional. No dialogue even about it! In fact, Bethia being essential to Caleb’s crossing doesn’t seem to change her as a person or the choices she makes in the future.

One of the reasons my enthusiasm wanes for the second and third sections of this story is because Caleb wanes in appearance in these sections. While he’s present for the entire time in Cambridge Bethia has very little interaction or even thought about him. He doesn’t really enter into her desires or ideas about life or the choices she wants. Caleb is on this other journey and while they ran parallel for some of their youth, their young adulthood skewed away from each other. We don’t truly get any of Caleb’s journey beyond the initial decision to be taught in the way of the English. I want to understand the why and how of his entire journey to be educated and go against his customs. I already know contact with religious figures started the whole struggle!! I wanted to experience Caleb’s Crossing.

How was Bethia changed for having known Caleb?

The biggest problem lies in the fact you could subtract Caleb from Bethia’s life and she’d have made the same choices she did with Caleb in her life. The book is called Caleb’s Crossing yet the protagonist is about a woman named Bethia. So it stands to reason that without Caleb, Bethia wouldn’t be Bethia.

For example, while she was at Cambridge she could have went off with Caleb for secret lessons on what he learned that day or week. In this way a more emotional relationship could have been avoided while furthering her desires for learning engendered by her parents. She could have entertained dreams of going off with Caleb and having a totally new life out on the frontier. The feelings she felt toward Caleb could have been rejected and yet motivated her to fall in love with her Christian husband, Samuel. Really by developing both of these we could see where Caleb intertwined with Bethia.

It’s through exploring possibilities that we make our way through the minefield of creating who we are as people. Caleb had to be essential to Bethia’s life journey, even if not in a lover’s way, for a book about her life to be called Caleb’s Crossing. In the end Caleb had to have effected Bethia’s choices.

When Caleb died what did Bethia do differently?

Another lost opportunity was Caleb’s effect on her marriage. Whatever her relationship with Caleb, he would have caused conflict in her married life. For a person who can be defined by another’s crossing, this would be a touchy topic and of great influence on their relationship. No way would a man, even a forward thinking man, allow his wife to go haring off onto Indian lands to find some old medicine man, all for a heathen already dying. She would have had to argue and fight for the right to bestow peace on Caleb. Conflict is the best influx in a story. It enriches and enlivens any narrative.

The writer seemed to start with a certain conclusion in mind and there were boundaries she refused to cross. This book has at it’s core a religious commentary. Whether you are for or against religion it is all about boundaries and exploring the thoughts and ideas on both sides. Then you make your decision. I had no problem with Bethia choosing her religion and a Christian husband for the majority of her life, but she should have at the very least flirted with the bridge Caleb provided. By exploring these boundaries we would have seen Caleb’s effect and truly understood why he had to make the crossing, satisfying his role as title character.

I ended up caring little that Caleb passed into the spirit world and worried more whether minor character Anne would survive without minor character Joel. There simply wasn’t enough contact between Bethia and Caleb for me to care. My expectation was to experience how Caleb’s Crossing represented Bethia. I wanted to experience how her feelings for Caleb took her down a different road. The saddest of all is – I never felt her road deviate.

Accolades should not be neglected, they can hide serious story issues.

These lost opportunities to fulfill reader expectations doesn’t mean the book isn’t well written. Writing is not story. A good story doesn’t have to be well written. This is a myth that popular writers don’t want dispelled. Yet I’m here to do so!

Calebs Crossing - CoverGeraldine Brooks knows how to setup a narrator. One of the most important skills of the writer is to inspire the reader to identify and sympathize with Bethia. Filled with guilt and loathing toward her sins and the outcomes she perceives are due to her actions, she gives the reader a sense of being inside a very real girl/woman. I admired many of the things she chose to do and the faith in which she approached life. There was a very real spiritual belief in the character that speaks to those with similar beliefs. And her curiosity toward people is certainly to be admired and looked up to.

I found the experiences Bethia went through in the second section, Cambridge in 1661, to be really evocative of the time period and of the struggle of women through history. You felt Bethia’s own struggle on a deeply personal level as we’ve come to understand her so intimately. The best historical novels make what is a widespread experience from history feel like something you or someone you loved experienced today. When Bethia had to stand before her congregation and tell everyone that she had shamed her brother. My heart really broke for her, as it does for those women in the middle east who are tortured by their husbands. She’s such a good woman that you really feel for her that she has to look like some shameful hussy even though it couldn’t be further from the truth. Bethia goes a long way to selling the story if not the book itself, simply by portraying a very real representation of a living, breathing woman trying to make it in a world hard on women.

Geraldine Brooks is obviously a superior writer. The first section of the book, Great Harbor in 1660, set up a beautiful connection and dare I say love between the reader and Caleb. Through Bethia’s eyes I looked forward to the next time they’d meet. I’d ponder their words as if spoken into my ear. Their divisive argument hurt my heart as I’m sure it did their own while they were apart. The writer really made you feel like Caleb would be a major part of Bethia’s life. And a positive one to boot since he wasn’t bound by the same restrictions as her father and brother. You come to care for Caleb as you would a younger brother that you want to see through to adulthood or as a young man who you fell in love with as a girl and still love as a women. I never felt sated on Caleb. I wanted to know more of the character and what he was experiencing in his crossing between worlds.

The narrative was written in such a way that it had a poetic waxing that added to the setting and characters. While not to my personal taste, this waxing was written with skill. The Brooks fans in our book club adored many passages. One snippet of poetic lyricism was particularly loved about a shell on a beach and how they are all different. Through Bethia’s ponderings they too wondered if the Lord expects us to take notice. Martha’s Vineyard was shown off to great effect and it played a contrast to Bethia’s youth (on the island) and her young adulthood (in Cambridge). Most important, the waxing contributed to this idea that Bethia was a romantic and longed after things that were forbidden and denied to her. This supported the idea she desired learning which indeed during these times were denied to women even by men close to them, like Bethia’s father.

A good narrator, a well  written narrative, reader sympathy for the characters involved and poetic waxing that adds to the setting and characters – all the makings of a good book. These can also hide very real and very serious problems with a story and convince readers that the niggles we felt while reading the story don’t matter. (But they do!) In this case good writing hid bad storytelling. We know what the publishing company hoped they bought – Caleb’s Crossing; what we got was Bethia’s Religious Life. Not a bad story but not what I was expecting.

Calebs Crossing Title - Cover Art

Titles are the gateway to a story; we start our journeys there.

Through titles we meet the characters or the themes we’ll be companions with throughout the story; we are introduced to both in the best titles. Caleb’s Crossing had both too! The problem was the story didn’t live up to the expectations. Our journey ended at the end of an old woman’s life and we weren’t really sure where we were. We’d ended up in Nowhereland, a place where expectations go to die. Some readers walk away with a jaunt in their step, their philosophy that any journey is worth taking. Others live a happy life with the truth, it’s just not always a rosy view. Whatever your point of view a story should be reflected in the title and the title should reflect the story. It’s a title’s purpose.

The better written a work, the less obvious the problems but the more painful. It saddens me that Caleb’s crossing into the English world lead him no where, that he left no lasting mark on the world and that his sacrifice was only worth an empty title and a useless plaque. If you desire a jaunt through Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600′s where a girl chose religion instead of advancement and felt happy for it then Bethia’s Religious Life is for you.

To explore in more depth the importance of titles, cover art and marketing blurbs then read my post, here.

Should we form expectations based on the title, cover art and marketing blurb of a book? Do you pick up a book due to it’s title or someone else’s good word? Do you enjoy historical stories? Would you be pissed if the title character were an after thought? Is religion a topic you enjoy exploring?

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