Friday, July 27, 2012

Book Club: Caleb's Crossing

Critics and readers have lavished praise on Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing, a novel inspired by the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. However, I slogged through the novel and wasn't hooked until I was half finished. So I was curious to hear what the other members of our little group had to say.

Regrettably, two of our members couldn't participate, but I was surprised to learn that I wasn't alone in my difficulty to get into the story. Our member who loved the book had lived for a period in the Boston area so she enjoyed the depictions of Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge. She also appreciated learning more about the historical period and the lives of the colonists, which we all agreed with, and following Bethia from childhood to old age.

My difficulty with Caleb's Crossing was the point of view. It is narrated by Bethia Mayfield who meets and befriends Caleb when she is 12. The story is revealed as a sort of journal or memoir recorded by Bethia at different times of her life. Although described as Caleb's story, I found the novel to be Bethia's story with Caleb as a supporting character. Anything we learn about Caleb's crossing from his native culture to that of the colonists is told through Bethia. They share an interest in nature and education, and struggle to understand each other's society even as they embrace aspects of each culture. Yet Caleb's thoughts, difficulties, and actions are all filtered through Bethia's journal. Caleb's story is distanced by time (all action is reported after the fact) and point of view (Bethia's perceptions and recollections). I began the book in anticipation of reading Caleb's story. Instead, I got Bethia's struggle with the limitations of her society.

We all agreed we are glad we weren't living in Bethia's time and place. Bethia, like all the women of the colony, were expected to be silent and obedient. The men in their lives made all the decisions.

We did appreciate how Bethia's and Caleb's challenges were paralleled throughout the book -- the social limitations and prejudices faced by women and the indigenous peoples.  We decided Caleb met the greatest challenge, since he was dealing with languages (English, Greek, Latin), a religion, and a culture strange to him while Bethia accepted her religious and social role even though she struggled against many of the restrictions.

We discussed how a closed, tight knit society shapes its members. Although Bethia escapes the confines of the colony to explore the island, she is still very much a product of her strict religion and culture. Of the two child-rearing norms, we much preferred the Wampanoag way of allowing children the freedom to run and play and learn by doing versus the strict and dour upbringing of the Puritans.

Using discussion questions provided by a reader's guide we talked about the Golden Mean, the sense of independence and potential that symbolizes the United States, and our own feelings and experiences with prejudice. One character presented the philosophical ideal of the middle point between extremes with the exception of the extremes of good and evil. Are good and evil fixed concepts, or are they defined by society? The United States was defined by physical frontiers that represented limitless potential for individuals to forge their own futures. Having bumped into the "left coast" our current frontiers appear to be more intellectual and require a more cooperative effort -- such as high tech startups seeking financial backers. Each of us has observed ethnic and racial prejudices and confronted our own preconceptions about "others."

Our book club members agreed that the time period and setting of Caleb's Crossing makes for an interesting read, and the struggles of two young people against the limitations placed on them is an interesting story.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fly Masks and Parallel Universes

Phantom with fly mask on -- for the moment.
Last summer I bought Phantom a new fly mask that immediately went MIA. Fortunately I held on to his old mask as a backup. The new mask magically reappeared but just as quickly disappeared again. When it mysteriously showed up once again I stashed it in my tack locker. The old mask survived the remainder of the summer without going missing.

Once again I've experienced the comings and goings of fly masks.

This summer I whipped out Phantom's ratty old fly mask. It went missing early in fly season -- but since Phantom also lost a layer of hair on his face I'm guessing one of his pasture mates is credited with an assist. It was time to try the new fly mask again, which remarkably has remained on his face thus far.

Today I found Phantom's new mask on the front of his stall. Turns out he was wearing his old mask. Someone must have discovered it in the pasture.

So where do these fly masks go? How do they inexplicably return?

Obviously the fly masks go to a parallel universe and then return to our own. Physicists should be studying equine fly masks instead of using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to pursue spring theory and "branes."

I doubt Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) would expose himself to the "dangers" of the barn, but Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe, The Hidden Reality:  Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos) might accept an invite.

Monday, July 16, 2012


In general, first person point of view is considered a more intimate approach to story telling. However, the novel I just finished reading for our book club actually seemed to be distanced by the first person narrator.

I'll go into more detail about this particular novel following our book club discussion. But I have to admit that it took me halfway into the novel to get hooked, and even then I was irritated with the story as I rushed to the end to just finish the darned thing.

As I closed the book it struck me that what most bothered me was the POV. In this particular novel there was a lot of telling. Not so much showing. You know the writing cliche:  "Show, don't tell."

First person POV limits the story to the experiences of the narrator. So the narrator needs to be present at key scenes throughout the novel, or the narrator must be able to fill in those scenes in an interesting manner.

The narrator of the historical novel in question was constrained by the social norms of the period and culture portrayed. Although the narrator did attempt to push the envelope at times. In addition, the narration was represented as a journal of sorts. Which meant the scenes had already occurred in the past. Although the narrator recreated scenes to give them more immediate impact for the reader, much significant action had to be summarized by the narrator after the fact.

First person POV is more immediate when the author selects the right narrator. In this particular case, I think the author selected the wrong person to tell the story. The narrator was an interesting character to establish the time and setting for the story. But I think the narrator was too removed from the central premise for the novel.

A good lesson in approaching POV. What does the reader need to experience for the story to work? How can that experience best be presented to the reader?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Fess Up

Okay -- fess up! Who doesn't hopscotch when you encounter it chalked on the sidewalk? Indy gives me that humans-are-so-weird look, but at least for a few seconds I get to be a kid again.

How about you?