This is a book I fully expected to love, as I am a long-time fan of the author. Brooks was an excellent journalist and writer of non-fiction before she became a respected writer of historical novels. She writes elegant prose and has the ability to evoke a sense of time and place without overdoing the period detail. She can also impart historical information without resorting to tedious information dumps. Of crucial importance, Brooks has sound research skills. As a reader, I always feel confident that she will use reliable sources and get the details right. In addition, Brooks creates memorable characters who fully inhabit the environment in which they are placed. While Brooks uses her novels to explore themes of interest to modern readers, her characters are never just contemporary people in period clothing.
This novel has as its background the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, who in 1665 became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, which later became Harvard University. Caleb was from Martha’s Vineyard (Brooks’ adopted home) and the narrative also deals with the first English settlements on the island and the relationships between its Native American inhabitants and the colonists. As relatively little is known about the historical Caleb, Brooks tells the story from the point of view of a fictitious character, Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a colonial leader who develops a friendship with Caleb and who struggles with the varying demands of faith, family, community, friendship and a desperate desire for education. The novel is Bethia’s diary and memoir.
There’s a lot to like about the novel. The characters are believable and while Caleb is less vivid than the title of the novel would suggest, this is not surprising, given how little is known about the real-life Caleb. Brooks is only prepared to let her imagination about Caleb’s life go so far and to me this is entirely appropriate. The details about the relationships between the colonists and the Native Americans are interesting, as are the accounts of preparatory schooling and the life of scholars at Harvard College. Crucially, Bethia’s tale is poignant and involving.
So why did this book leave me a little disappointed? It wasn’t the writing, which was as good as always. But for all of the novel’s qualities, I felt a little disconnected from the narrative: I was not nearly as involved with the novel as I was with Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel March. On reflection, my reaction probably has a lot more to do with me than it does with the book. I think that as a general rule I prefer historical fiction when it does not centre on characters who really existed. I find myself wondering about the “real” story just a bit too much to completely lose myself in the narrative*. In the case of this novel, I found myself wanting to get to the end so that I could read the author’s note and find out more about Brooks’ research. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I would rather read a historian or biographer’s take on the primary sources than a novelist’s, particularly if the novelist bases their research on histories or biographies written by someone else. That’s not a big concern with Brooks’ writing; she is too experienced to fudge her research. But spending even part of the time I was reading this novel wondering about the real Caleb’s life was a little distracting.
Overall, notwithstanding my vague sense of disappointment, I did like the novel quite a lot. My respect for Geraldine Brooks as a writer remains very high. I will read anything she writes. This comes in at about 3-1/2 stars.
*The exception to this might be Wolf Hall, which I loved so much as a novel that I didn't care if it was accurate history.