Decoctions. Shapeling. Goodwife. Sumptuary. Breechclout. Gallnut. Forenoon. Shallops. Espied. Sneakery. Descry. Squa. Weal.

That's just a sample of the old-fashioned words peppering the first few dozen pages of this month's feature novel, Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.

Some meanings were clear from the context, a few words had me reaching for my dictionary, while others such as "misliked" or "somewhen" simply appealed for their rarity. All of them drew my close attention to the language Brooks has chosen.

The book is told as if it were the spiritual diary of 15-year-old Bethia, a Puritan minister's daughter living on the island of Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, in the mid-1600s. The diary is the only place Bethia can unburden herself of the sins which she believes were the true cause of her mother's death following the birth of her younger sister Solace. "Break God's laws and suffer ye his wrath," she writes. "Well, and so I do. The Lord lays his hand sore upon me as I bend under the toil I now have - my mother's and mine, both."


So Bethia sets out to give "an accounting of those months when my heart sat so loose from God." At this point I've read about 50 pages, and so far Brooks strikes a fine balance, using just enough old words to give Bethia an authentic period voice, but not so many, or so obscure, to frustrate the reader.

Bethia tells how, as a 12-year-old, she wandered the island secretly observing the Native American Wampanoag people or "salvages", as the colonists refer to those they believe are in need of salvation. She is moved by their rhythmic drumming and dancing, and the powerful prayers of the pawaaws or spiritual leaders, who her father calls "murderers of souls". She tells of her emerging friendship with Cheeshahteaumauck, a chieftain's son who - according to the back cover of the book - will go on to become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665.

Bethia gradually learns enough of the Wampanoag language to exchange ideas with Cheeshateaumauck. He calls her Storm Eyes and she dubs him Caleb, after Moses' companion in the desert. Caleb tells her of his thirty seven gods of sun and moon, of fire and trees and fish. But even as Bethia listens to this "pantheon of heathenish idols" and worries for Caleb's lost soul, she hears "Satan's voice" inside her, reminding her that she has already worshipped the sun god in "the radiance of a sunrise or...the glory of his sunset."

The convincing narrator's voice was one of the things I loved about Brooks' previous novel Year of Wonders, which (coincidentally, given both books were inspired by actual events) was also set in 1665, in the Derbyshire village of Eyam during the bubonic plague. Brooks has previously spoken about how she relied on verbatim court transcripts to determine how real women spoke at the time and help develop the voice of Anna, the recently-widowed narrator.

Both books have also reminded me how our choice of words - as distinct from the words themselves - can convey so much about the way we see the world and our station in life. As our ideas and beliefs shift, so does our language - or perhaps it is the other way around? What do you think?

On Friday Bronwyn will be blogging about her feature read, There But For The by Ali Smith. Next Tuesday look out for our reader Q & A, when Geraldine Brooks will answer your questions.