Novel follows first Indian at Harvard

"Caleb's Crossing" by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin Group, 320 pages, $26.95)

The latest novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is a fascinating glimpse of domestic life on 17th-century Martha's Vineyard as 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 skillfully 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.

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.

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.

— Associated Press


“You Are Free: Stories” by Danzy Senna (Riverhead Books, 240 pages, $15 paper)

Children cry out in the night in these stories. There is a confusion of roles — dog and master, child and mother, husband and father. In most of the stories, mixed-race marriage is considered from angles that surprise and don’t surprise a reader. The choices we make are revealed as empty choices, cobbled together out of need and necessity, not real freedom.

Danzy Senna reveals things about people that we rarely see in day-to-day life. She makes it hard to judge her characters — even the young, lonely woman who confuses violence with intimacy and beats her dog. (You will be glad to leave her company, but you have a sense of where her violence comes from.)

The truth is seldom plain — in the title story a 33-year-old woman, Lara, receives a letter and several calls from a young woman convinced she is the daughter Lara gave up for adoption. Lara begins to wonder if the appendectomy she had when she was 13 was actually a pregnancy. Nothing is certain. Perception muddies truth. We look up relieved to live in a world of facts.— Los Angeles Times