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A Week in the 17th Century (Two Book Reviews)

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September 3, 2014 by kristin

In the last week, I’ve read two novels set in the 17th century, and I’ve come to the conclusion that if I had access to Dr. Who’s police box, I would steer well clear of the 1600s. Both books I read were of the grittier sort, which is my favorite type of historical fiction to read (if not, seemingly, to write – so far). And wow – the 1600s, man. Not a pretty time to live.

caleb's crossing

The first was Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing. It’s been on my Goodreads to-read list since it was released in 2011, because Madame Brooks is my ultimate writer-crush. I’ve read all of her novels (though none of her nonfiction, yet), which is more than I can say for almost any other writer. She has such a knack for language and setting, for transporting the reader to another time and place (in the safe-on-my-couch, non-life-threatening kind of way I like).

In Caleb’s Crossing, Brooks shows an unblinking view of the harsh life of a 17th-century woman living in a small colony in New England. The main character Bethia is smart and driven to learn, despite her father and brother’s efforts to keep her from being, essentially, too smart for her own good. A Puritan wife would only shame a husband if she appeared smarter than him, and there is no hope on their island home (Martha’s Vineyard, before it was so called) of finding a much-educated husband.

Through Bethia’s eyes, Brooks also shows what it is like to be Caleb, son of a Wampanoag chief and nephew of a shaman, who is torn between the world of his people and the new one the English settlers thrust upon them. Bethia and Caleb form an unlikely friendship, and she bears witness to his journey to become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard (the historical impetus for this story).

Brooks masterfully weaves in archaic language to capture the cadence and feel of 17th-century speech without rendering it unreadable. She creates a compelling character in the quick-witted and conflicted Bethia. I cared about Bethia and wanted her to find a way to rise above the many tragedies dished out to her. (Trigger warning: Don’t get too attached to anyone.)

And yet, ultimately, I felt something was missing from the story. The book is named for Caleb and inspired by his story, but it’s impossible to see the full extent of his inner turmoil when we are viewing him, for most of the book, from a distance. Perhaps a dual narrative would’ve served the subject matter better, so that we were given more opportunity to care about Caleb’s fate in the same way we cared about Bethia’s.

I liked the book and recommend it, especially to anyone with a particular interest in the Puritans, but for me it was a three-star, compared with four and five stars for her previous novels.

the miniaturist

The second book I read was The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. She’s a first-time author from the UK, and apparently the book made quite a splash upon release and is now on the New York Times Bestseller list as well. Yay for first-time authors making it big!

The Miniaturist captured my attention with its fabulous cover and a promise that the story would center around a mysterious dollhouse. Sold! I love dollhouses and miniatures. (It’s a sickness.)

Set in 17th-century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist is the story of Nella, a young and hastily married bride, whose wealthy older husband Johannes isn’t exactly welcoming. Meanwhile, his cold and Puritanical sister Maris runs the household and seems to enjoy putting Nella in her place. (What is it with those Puritans anyway?)

Johannes, a merchant who seems to be hiding from Nella behind his work, brings her an extravagant wedding gift – an enormous cabinet containing a precise replica of their house. Lonely and bored, Nella finds a miniaturist in the directory and writes a letter requesting a few pieces for the miniature house. The pieces that arrive are exquisite, but they aren’t exactly what Nella ordered. 

While mysteries swirl around Johannes, Maris and the servants in the house, more miniatures arrive, unordered, with details that seem to indicate the miniaturist knows secrets about all the occupants of their house.

The author deftly builds the anticipation and horror as Nella strives to uncover – and then keep covered – the mysteries of the house. This is one you could call “atmospheric.” Both houses – the full size and the miniature – hold their secrets close. Nella is by turns comforted and frightened by them both. The historical detail is lush, and I liked learning more about the laws and society in 17th-century Amsterdam.

The trouble is, most of the characters are glimpsed through keyholes, sometimes literally. They seem real but not quite whole, because we are only given slivers of insight, just as Nella herself is. That contributes to the mystery and the atmosphere but not to my connection with the characters. I enjoyed the read and read quickly to find out what all the little clues meant, but I didn’t much care what happened to the characters, except perhaps the maid.

This one I also rated three stars. Recommended, especially if you like Dutch history, but not a “shout it from the rooftops” book for me.


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About Kristin

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Historical fiction writer and reader. Procrastinator. Sewist. Slytherin. Fan of red lipstick, rock 'n' roll, and everything vintage.

Current Work-in-Progress

The Boy in the Red Dress

When her drag queen best friend is accused of murdering a socialite, a Jazz Age Veronica Mars searches for the real killer in the seedy underbelly and glittering upper crust of 1931 New Orleans.

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