Tuesday, December 29, 2015

CALEB'S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is a prolific writer of historical fiction.  She won the Pulitzer Prize for "March," the story of the father in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."  I have read a number of her books and find that they are all historically accurate and well-researched.  To this she adds an interesting story making them irresistible reading.  Her most recent book is "The Secret Chord," a story about King David which has received mixed reviews.

"Caleb's Crossing" is set in the 1660s on the island of Martha's Vineyard (where the author has her home) and in the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the mainland. As is her wont, the author has chosen to write a story based on real characters who existed in the Puritan era of the English settlement of the American colonies.

We meet Bethia Mayfield through her diaries; she is now an old woman, near death, who has a story to tell us.  Bethia was a young Puritan maid whose father left the Mass Bay Colony of John Winthrop to found a settlement on Martha's Vineyard.  There he set out to convert the local tribe of Wampanoag Indians to Christianity.  Bethia's mother dies, as many women did at that time, in childbirth.  Not only was childbirth precarious, but life for everyone was hard, short, and dangerous.  Children succumbed to disease, the cold, and starvation.  Bethia was eventually left with only her father and one brother, Makepeace, who was a dour sort of fellow, finding little joy in life.  In contrast Bethia is full of life and curiosity, and it is this curiosity which leads her to befriend a young Indian boy.  She struggles with the guilt of being fascinated by the culture and ceremonies of the natives which her strict Calvinistic upbringing has taught her is sinful.  Bethia and the Indian boy who later takes the Christian name, Caleb, form a strong and everlasting bond.  Both characters suffer internal conflicts trying to bridge the gap between their two strong cultural backgrounds.

Bethia being a strong and healthy young woman is destined for marriage while her brother, not nearly as bright as Bethia, is assured a place at Harvard with a future in the ministry.  While stiff as a board, Makepeace is not an unsympathetic character.  He too struggles against his destiny. Caleb (based on a real historical person, the first Native American to matriculate from Harvard) having been converted by the Reverend Mayfield, excels in his studies and joins Mayfield at the College.  The story progresses in Cambridge and we see the boys and learn of their studies through the eyes of Bethia who becomes a servant in their boarding house after the death of her father.

Throughout the book, Brooks uses authentic settings and language.  She does an admirable job of making her characters real people who suffered and lived out their destinies, even as they fought against the paths laid out for them.  The story is full of quiet suspense and sadness like that which Caleb sees for the future of his people.

I highly recommend this book to all readers as a realistic portrayal of the hardships of life in colonial New England, yet also a story of bravery and strength of character in the face of ignorance and harsh living conditions.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


David Kertzer won the Pulitzer Prize for this vastly informative and groundbreaking book.  I remember going to school as a child and seeing a picture of Pius XII on the wall in every classroom.  Little did we know what scheming and nefarious actions this man was responsible for during the time leading up to the Second World War.  Yet, even today when newly opened archives point to the truth, people are still in denial about the role of the Popes and the Church in the betrayal of the Jewish Italian population.  We grew up with the notion that the Catholic Church leaders were enemies of Mussolini and fought bravely against Fascism.  What really happened is recounted in Kertzer's fascinating and well-written history, the subtitle of which is: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.  It is the story of two men who came to power in Italy in the same year, 1922, and though they met only once, they ruled together for 17 years, largely through a series of go-between emissaries, most notably an unpleasant Jesuit named Tacci Venturi and Cardinal Pacelli who became Pius XII upon the death of Acille Ratti who was Pius XI.

The Vatican and Mussolini had many differences, but antisemitism was not one of them.  The Church used it as a way to advance the faith; Mussolini used it to garner praise and respect from Hitler. This was odd because the Duce was originally Hitler's role model. While the Church did not actively campaign against the Italian Jews, it did turn a blind eye to both Hitler's and the Duce's increasing racial discrimination, in some cases facilitating it through editorials in the Catholic press.  Though Ratti and Mussolini were frequently angry and frustrated with each other, they had more in common than not.  Both were feared by their underlings, and both ruled absolutely, often displaying temper tantrums when they faced opposition.  Both the Vatican and Rome were riddled with corruption which extended down the ranks of each organization.

The crowning achievement of cooperation between the two men was the passing of the Lateran Accords in 1929 which returned power to the Church which had been lost in 1870 when Italy became a a Kingdom. Once again Catholicism became the state religion.  In return, the Duce received the support of the Vatican for his programs and most importantly when he invaded Abyssinia and claimed territory which gave him a base in Africa.  The Catholic clergy in Italy willingly added to the cult of Mussolini mixing up Fascist and Catholic ritual, legitimizing the thugs the Duce set upon the Jewish population.

Eventually Pius XI saw the handwriting on the wall, but it was too late.  He was on his deathbed and had abrogated power to Cardinal Pacelli who pandered to both Hitler and Mussolini, even going so far as to change the wording of the Pope's final speeches.  After the death of Mussolini, Pacelli as Pius XII destroyed many incriminating paper and documents and initiated a cover-up that had lasted into the 21st century when the archives were finally opened on this shameful period in the history of the Catholic Church.

There is so much valuable material in this book, which took Kertzer seven years to write, that the reader must judge for him/herself.  I highly recommend it to all readers.  It would be an excellent book for reading groups; no doubt, it would spark discussion and in some cases disagreement.  "The Pope and Mussolini" is a valuable read which deserved the Puilitzer Prize.  It was also listed as one of the 10 best books of the NY Times for 2014.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore is one of the best of the contemporary American writers.  "A Gate at the Stairs" was chosen as on of the NY Times best books in 2014 and was also in contention for the Orange Prize and  the PEN/Faulkner Award.  By the time I had finished this book, I loved it and its main character.

Tassie Keltjin, a farm girl from the middle America, is possessed with a keen mind and sharp wit.  Her social graces aren't always on display; she is too honest for that.  Tassie's parents are sort of ex-hippies from out East.  They grow boutique potatoes that are in high demand by the artisanal restaurants which are springing up everywhere.  Tassie attends the local University in Troy which is the nearest town to their farm.  Somewhat naive, Tassie is just learning how to read people, and she makes mistakes along the way.  As the fall semester gets underway, Tassie's life becomes entwined with two people who have a profound effect on her growth and understanding.  She falls in love with Reynaldo, a Brazilian boy (or is he ???) she meets at school.  The more profound relationship is with Sarah Brink, who turns out to have a dark past that we don't find out until the climax of the book.

Tassie finds a job as a nanny with the Brinks, a couple about to adopt a mixed-race child. Even when the reader is first introduced to the Brinks, there is a sense of foreboding around them and a certain weirdness in their manner.

  Sarah Brink runs a boutique restaurant which serves up all kinds of pretentious dishes.  Naturally she serves the organic potatoes from the Keltjin farm.  It is the fall of 2001 and the destruction of the World Trade Center intrudes on the lives of our small town characters in ways they could not anticipate.  Before long the reader intuits that under the placid everyday life of our characters lurks secrets: racism, fear, and pretense.  Countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, which once seemed so far away, affect  Tassie and her family when her brother, Robert, joins the army. Tassie becomes very close to the child, Emmie, entrusted to her care as the Brinks are too busy to give her much attention.
As Tassie's awareness and wariness grows, so grows the reader's.

Moore writes gorgeous descriptions full of apt metaphors and similes.  Her character, Tassie, sees with honest eyes and exposes pretensions with humor.  The sometimes loneliness of a college student living alone is spot on.  The scenes which take place on the farm are grounded and real.  Tassie's relationship with her brother and what isn't said between them is heartbreaking.  Finally, Tassie's relationships with her family, Emmie and the Brinks, as well as Reynaldo, teach her about the tenuousness of life and reality hiding in plain sight.

I highly recommend this book to all readers for its insight, humor and good writing.