The new novel by Geraldine Brooks, CALEB'S CROSSING, is set primarily on Martha’s Vineyard and in Cambridge, MA., during the 17th century.
Bethia Mayfield, the protagonist, is an intelligent, thoughtful, restless spirit. She and a native Indian boy defy society’s norms by secretly becoming close friends.
The first portion of the book takes place in 1660. When Bethia’s mother dies in childbirth, she must raise the infant, Solace, in addition to the usual household chores. But she escapes the household drudgery occasionally to enjoy the beauty of the island she loves with its “briny air, its ever changing light . . . the clean and glassy breakers breaking on the sands, the clay cliffs flaring russet and purple each sunset.”
The second section of the book begins in 1661, only one year later, but the reader is immediately dismayed at the change in Bethia’s life. What happened? Where is her sister Solace? Her father?
She’s living in Cambridge, with the “flat fens and dung-strewn pastures” surrounding an “unlovely town” with houses “pressed tight together on narrow lots that have formed a barrier to the drainage of the land behind, so that in foul weather all turns swamp and mire.”
“Since the townsfolk do not trouble where they tip their slops, the air reeks, and everywhere the middens rise, rotting in steaming piles of clutter and muck. The creek is brackish . . . since the town uses it as a drain.”
In this detestable atmosphere, Bethia’s now both cook and housekeeper to Master Corlett’s boy students. I read faster and faster to find out why. I had to wait thirty-two pages to find out about her sister Solace. And forty-four pages to find out what happened to her father and why she's now an indentured servant.
Geraldine Brooks played with my curiosity, but I kept reading. Does the author risk losing readers by withholding information too long? When does this trick work? When does it fail?