Right down to the prose which is brilliantly created you feel as if you’ve read a genuine tale of early colonial historical fiction.
Geraldine Brooks has once again immersed us in a historical setting far removed from present day. The time is the last half of the 17th century; the place the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony, the main characters Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a minister and Caleb Cheeshaahteaumauk, a Wampanoag Indian. Brooks has an easy talent, no doubt the result of copious research, in creating an authentic feel to this story. The inspiration for the story was Caleb, a real life character who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1765. Brooks has created this story from the barebones facts known about Caleb.
Both Bethia and Caleb are born on Martha's Vineyard and the first chapters of the story are set there. Bethia is the narrator for the tale and an interesting character. She is intelligent, committed and often guilt ridden for events beyond her control. Brooks brilliantly recreates life for the settlers on the island. Hardships are abundant and loss of life commonplace. A childhood friendship between Bethia and Caleb sets the stage for the events to follow. Bethia’s father works at converting the Indians to Christianity. He tutors Caleb, another convert Joel and his own son Makepeace so that they may attend Harvard and become ministers. All three leave the island for Cambridge to continue their education. Bethia, desperate to learn but denied education because of her gender, accompanies them as a servant. Again we are treated to descriptions of life at Cambridge and later Harvard College that ring true.
Without giving away too much of the plot, let me say that I found the last third of the book oddly flat. In it, Bethia now an elderly dying woman, looks back and describes the events that transpired at Harvard and after. The telling is almost rote and, in contrast to the passions expressed in the first part of story, is detached and unemotional. I think in sticking to the known facts of Caleb’s life instead of fully creating a fictional story, the ending was stilted and unfulfilling.
Despite the finish, I did enjoy this book. Right down to the prose which is brilliantly created you feel as if you’ve read a genuine tale of early colonial historical fiction.
I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.