Category Archives: book review

Review of Geraldine Brooks’ Book, Caleb’s Crossing

Review by Joseph Langen

Martha’s Vineyard is one of my favorite spots on earth and I feel fortunate to spend time there every Fall. Caleb’s Crossing, being largely set there, immediately grabbed my interest. This story takes place in the sixteen hundreds and involves a family led by a British missionary in what is now Martha’s Vineyard. Also featured are the Native Americans now known as the Wampanoag people who once had run of the entire island. Now they are found mostly in the western end of the island in the town of Aquinnah.

The title Caleb’s Crossing suggests that Caleb is the main character and the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. It turns out that this is a fascinating subplot rather than the main story. There indeed existed a student, Caleb Chooshahteaumauk, from the people identified by a variety of names but now known as the Wampanoag. He did graduate from Harvard in the seventeenth century.

Although there were indeed missionaries named Mayhew, Bethea, the main character, is “entirely fictional” per the author. In this riveting tale of the times, she is the daughter of a missionary who becomes friends with Caleb early in life and maintains her relationship with him into adulthood.

The writing is in the voice of Bethea and may at first seem somewhat stilted to readers in the twenty-first century. The style is suggestive of how people in the seventeenth century wrote and spoke. After the point has been made the writing style changes in later chapters to one with which we are more familiar now.  

This is a story about events which could have happened in the seventeenth century and what it was like to live on the island and in Cambridge, situated in what was the Massachusetts Bay Colony at that time. Available historical details were gleaned from contemporary records held by Martha’s Vineyard libraries and agencies as well as from records maintained by the Wampanoags.

The story chronicles daily life at the time as well as the struggle between religious doctrine and customs of the missionaries and the nature based beliefs of the Wampanoags. These included the clash between religion and common sense, racial discrimination against the native peoples, limited rights and opportunities for women and a harsh life for many people. Despite the rigor of the times, the story suggests that, as always, people found ways to connect with each other in commerce, friendship, and romance despite the rigors of the culture in which they lived.

I particularly enjoyed this story about what might have happened centuries ago in a place I have come to love. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.    

Review of American Dialogue by Joseph Ellis

I have been looking for some perspective on the current issues facing our country. By chance, I happened across Ellis’s very recent book.  I approached it with great anticipation and was not disappointed.

Ellis discusses four major issues and four of the founders of our country who wrestled with them. They include race and Thomas Jefferson, economic equality and John Adams, constitutional law and James Madison as well as foreign affairs and George Washington.

He discusses historical considerations which guided each man in his approach to influencing the foundation of our government. He also explores the moral considerations, personal convictions, political pressures and competing values facing each of them. He also discusses the implications for our infant republic as well as for our current one.

Ellis also documents how the struggles of these founders still hold a prominent place in our present day efforts to maintain our democracy. Particularly difficult for us is how to find and maintain a balance of capitalism and equality of opportunity for all of our citizens. Equally challenging is how to balance our own needs as a country while maintaining our balance with other nations.

The author also considers the focus of our current administration on withdrawal from participation in world citizenship. In its place is the choice to use our military and economic power to get what we want rather than relying on diplomacy.  As a result we are fast losing our place in the world as an example of how democracy might work for all of our citizens and perhaps for those of other countries.

We face serious challenges as did our country’s founders. In order to survive, we must find a way to meet our current challenges together rather than allowing ourselves to be pitted against one another. We found a way to do this in the early days of our republic. It is time for us to step up to the challenge once again. Reading this book will provide you with a perspective on our current challenges in historical perspective. 

We have made progress through the course of the centuries since the establishment of our country. Slavery is gone. People of color have gained a voice in our current affairs. Women have also found their voice. In that sense, our country has become more representative than it was initially. Yet we still have a factions seeking the supremacy of white men. We have work to do and it is time to keep going.   

Review of John Meachum’s book “The Soul of America”



My worst fear lately has been that this country is crumbling. Opposite factions seem to be pulling our society apart at the seams and I wonder what, if anything, will be left of us when it is all over. I started reading Meachum’s book with trepidation, fearing that it would make me feel even worse about our eventual fate. Remarkably, I did not feel the same way by the time I finished the book. Our country has been here before and yet survived.

I tended to think of our initial settlers and the statesmen who founded and tended our nation in its infancy. I imagined them as being of one mind, hopefully with the best interests of our country foremost in their minds. I guess I should not have been surprised to be reminded how different various factions were and remain so to the present day.

I think of the leaders who brought out the best in the expression of our national soul. Machum lays out for us that not one of them was of a single purpose. Each of them felt a need to compromise to some extent on issues which divided the nation in order to accomplish anything at all. These leaders were human after all and also represented people with many different beliefs and priorities. Bringing everyone together was a monumental challenge to our past leaders and some did a better job than others at bridging the divide.

In the end, our soul is not cut of one cloth but is rather a patchwork quilt of widely disparate energies often pulling the nation in opposite and contradictory directions. For the most part, many of those with strong opinions had the welfare of our nation in mind along with their own deeply seated beliefs. Yet they often disagreed on how to best bring the nation together.

Trump is only mentioned once in the book. Yet our current age and the state of our soul has us pulling in many contradictory directions yet again. We don’t currently agree on what is best for us or on how to get to a point where we can agree on the direction we should take from here.

One glaring example is the issue of racial equality versus white supremacy. This tension has hounded us from the early days of the American experiment. We have certainly made strides toward equality but fear and prejudice have continued to pull us apart. We still have quite a bit of work to do to become one nation making up the soul of America. We have been at this stressful point of tension many times before and somehow have brought ourselves back from the abyss. We need to discover a way to once again come together in our common interest. This is the challenge which faces us all in these trying times.