Historical fiction at its finest

THE LATEST novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is a fascinating glimpse of domestic life on 17th Century Martha’s Vineyard.

The author weaves a tale based on the life of the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard College.

Caleb’s Crossing was inspired by Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wopanaak Indian who graduated in 1665 and died a year later of consumption.

From the few facts available about the man, Brooks skilfully imagines his life and how it intertwines with that of narrator Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a preacher, and her family.

This is historical fiction at its finest. Brooks assumes the voice of a time while artfully blending the lyrical and concise: "He is coming on the Lord’s Day. Though my father has not seen fit to give me the news, I have the whole of it."

Brooks also brings to life a little-known time and place – Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600s – and the history behind the United States’ oldest institute of higher learning.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, an unusual friendship between an American Indian boy and a young girl hungry for knowledge and ahead of her time in many ways illuminates two cultures that continue to clash in many ways today.

One of the novel’s few shortcomings is its pacing, which sometimes feels a bit plodding despite the story’s inherent drama.

Shipwrecks, fatal illnesses, even an accidental drowning ... all feel similarly accepted and overcome with the austerity of the time.

Of course, it’s also possible this was all part of a masterful writer’s original intent.

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