Book Reviews, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

Writing Diagnostic: Caleb’s Crossing

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in or out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.

Writing Diagnostic #1:  let’s explore Geraldine Brooks’ newest book, Caleb’s Crossing, and its pseudo-diary format.

Calebs Crossing - CoverPutting aside all the problems with the title character, Caleb, you can easily commit that you hold Bethia with genuine affection and identify with her situation. This is obviously a superior writer, Geraldine Brooks knows how to setup a narrator and develop sympathy between the reader and the protagonist. Divided into three sections, based on time period and location, I ran into trouble with the writer’s diary format.

Right at the start time twisted oddly before and after Bethia’s mother died. A modern technique, I believe the writer used it because it’s her trademark, not because it added to the story. It does contribute slightly to the feeling you are in a person’s head, but it adds majorly to a feeling of confusion. We have yet to be oriented where we are in this girl’s story and already we are being yanked back and forth in time. While a person will think back on a memory and apply thinking from one time period to the present, in this case it’s unnecessary. Bethia, herself, tells us this is her diary. While conceivable, in a diary, to write in a stream of consciousness manner Bethia doesn’t have that luxury. She goes to a lot of effort to explain how she’s writing on scraps of paper left over from her brother’s lesson with limited space.

No. She would order her thoughts and starting from the beginning would concisely tell us what is important. Hence jumping back and forth in time from one line to the next would be highly unlikely. So problem number one is starting from an unclear place by using an unnecessary technique.

Now Bethia is writing this diary as a young, uneducated girl. She’s not an old woman or even a now educated woman looking back on her youth. She’s writing this real-time as illustrated by her using her brother’s scraps. This leads to my second problem: the words she used would have been simpler and less complex or flowery. Especially as compared from when she was a girl starting to write (the Great Harbor in 1660 and Cambridge in 1661 sections) to as an old woman in the Great Harbor in 1715 section. From page one she waxed poetic like an adult with an adult’s view yet told us clearly and explicitly this was a narrative written from when she was a girl. There should have been a gradual improvement in her writing from simple and clear to more flowery with more time and education to the beautiful language of a wise woman in her later years.

A symptom of these problems is a lack of understanding about Bethia’s feelings in relation to those she loves. We understand how they effected her actions and experiences but not how she felt about their effect. While we feel sympathy for Bethia and what she’s experiencing, because we are experiencing it with her in real-time we don’t really get a sense of her emotions. Many people have to think about what they feel, many times years later, before they know themselves.

For example, her baby sister, Solace. Bethia raised Solace after their mother died at her birth. Not one mention was made about how she loved that little girl, the affection she held for her in her role of mother, nor was either intimated through actions or some matter of plot. I really desired to feel the conflict a birth-death inspires in a person toward their sibling. I wanted to be inspired to love the baby as much as Bethia herself did. She had to adore that little girl to feel a pang at her loss so many years later in life. So why not inspire that pang in me so when I think back I feel it too? A little mention here and there and anyone would have felt the heartache.

The premise of writing on bits of paper is so darling and one women readers would adore, so I understand why the writer included that bit of the story. The sticky point is that then it needs to be executed so it reflects that kind of diary format. Skill and effort would need to be applied to make the idea work as it is and it would still lack emotional resonance unless worked at to add it. It’s not that Geraldine Brooks doesn’t have the ability, she just didn’t execute it.

The solution is to setup from the start that she’s old now and writing about her youth. She’s using notes she’s taken on scraps of paper left over from her brother’s lessons and memories that even time hasn’t work away. Give us a peek at the wisdom she’s distilled from her experiences and hint at us that the journey back through time is worth our efforts. This immediately solves both problems as well as the emotion-less symptom. It gives us a proper and clear starting point. We start as a girl with her mother’s death and jump off from there. It explains the consistent, poetical voice of Bethia and why she’s able to elaborate with such depth and breath when she only has scraps of paper to write on.

She can explore what she was feeling then and how her thoughts have changed from then to now. We can experience what Bethia felt at Solace’s death, her sale into what amounts to slavery and her joy at the choices she made. And most importantly, we can start to see how Caleb’s Crossing still lingers with her even when he’s been gone for some time. One expects when the narrator is old that they wouldn’t linger on boring or uneventful times so it supports the writer’s hot scotch time jumping, particularly through the Cambridge in 1661 section. Because there wasn’t this intentional reflection all along, the weakest section of the book was what should have been the climax, Great Harbor in 1715.

The jump from 1661 to 1715 is massive. As an old woman, about to die, she could have brought us to certain conclusions that she hadn’t even realized until late in life. Cambridge was too havey-cavey, the time jumping creating only a tenuous connection to the girl we got to know in Great Harbor only the year before! If written in an organized manner this last section would have neatly knotted the story together and allowed for reflections that would illuminate the readers’ lives.

As it was the Bethia I’d grown to love was gone, like someone I knew as a child but had grown too distant from as an adult. We no longer shared anything in common and as such I only distantly cared where she’d gone. Instead of understanding the core of Bethia and sighing with her at the end of a well lived life, I felt a pang of loss then moved on; not much impressed by my first Geraldine Brooks’ book.

The organizing thread running through you story is essential. If you retain plot details because they are touching rather than effective that thread starts to unravel. As a diary format was what the writer chose to use, it should have been backed up and reinforced through the story and how that story was told to us. At the core of every story is the protagonist’s emotions, without them there is no heart. Two different methods could have easily strengthened this story and really hit us with how Caleb’s Crossing made Bethia, Bethia.

Are you a fan of Geraldine Brooks? What’s your favorite book of hers? Did you love Caleb’s Crossing? Do you enjoy… themes of religion? The history genre? Diary format stories?

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