Caleb’s Crossing: Another Triumphant Novel from Geraldine Brooks

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks has produced another wonderful story, the exciting and passionate page-turner “Caleb’s Crossing.”

Brooks has taken us to the 17th Century frontier of Massachusetts, particularly the island known today as Martha’s Vineyard.  Its 1660 wildness was scantily populated by original Indian residents, with their ancient pagan beliefs, and a consequential group of settlers, hard-working farmers, most of whom were believers in a personal God and Puritanical teachings.

The story is told through the eyes and voice of Bethia Mayfield whose adolescence includes the development of a very close friendship with a young Indian tribal heir apparent who gets the English name of Caleb.  Bethia is a precocious young woman, who masters Latin, Greek, her native English and the Indian language, Wampanoag.  She tries to adhere to the strict values preached by her Minister Father.   From Caleb she also learns the ways of the wild, which berries to pick, where to find the best clam flats and what to know about nature on the Island.  But spiritually and intellectually, the “crossing” of the book’s title, is Bethia’s conversion of Caleb from a culture that worships the sun-god, “Keesakand,” to conventional liberal learning and Christian belief.

Were it not for the third-class citizenship applied to girls and women, this would be Bethia’s story.  Instead we are focused, as well, on Caleb’s struggle with his own Indian spiritual values and his gradual conversion to Christianity.  At the same time he dutifully undergoes the rigors of Indian “wilderness training” in preparation for his tribal leadership.  At the heart of the book is learning and self-improvement.  The young men are tutored and prepared for higher learning.  Bethia has to overhear what she will learn.

The Puritan perspective is well-represented here with every character having enough guilt for a whole life.  Imagining some error Bethia tells herself, “Sin stains us at birth and shadows our every hour.”  Here is an expanded engraving of the original sin concept that mirrors the iteration from Robert Penn Warren in the great “All the Kings Men,” where the Huey Long figure announces, “Man is conceived in sin and born in evil.”  This god-fearing perspective is a central theme in “Caleb’s Crossing,” and all one can say is that these same fears are with us today among a very sizable percentage of the population.  Brooks has gotten this religious aspect of her characters exactly right.

Caleb’s more literal “crossing,” in addition to adaptation to the white man’s religion and culture, is leaving the island for the mainland of Massachusetts Bay Colony where he will matriculate at Harvard and eventually be the first Indian graduate of that already august institution.  Brooks, a one-time reporter for the Wall Street Journal,

bases the Caleb character on what was apparently exhaustive research in Island archives, among the libraries of Harvard and from the earliest records of Massachusetts.  Bethia and most of the other figures in this novel are completely made-up but have been given multi-dimensional, compelling lives by this fine story-teller.

The earliest tension in the book is between the Indian spiritual perspective and the Christian.  Bethia decides to rename her new Indian “wild boy” friend:  “I will call you Caleb after the companion of Moses in the wilderness,” she announced.  “Who is Moses,” he asked.  She explained that he was a very great sonquem (leader) who led his tribe across the water and into a fertile land.  “You mean Moshu,” he said.  “Moshu made this island.   He dragged his foot through the water and made this island.”

In her narrator’s voice Bethia says, “I let him speak because I did not want to vex him and I liked to hear him tell the story with expression and vivid gesture.  But as I rode home that afternoon, it came to me that our story of a burning bush and a parted sea might also seem fabulous to one not raised up knowing it was true.”

Brooks has chosen to set the entire narrative and dialogue in the letters and vocabulary of 17th Century New England characters.  This makes moving through the story something of a slower process.  As an experiment I bought the book from Kindle and downloaded the text to my iPad.  There most of the old English words came to life through the “dictionary” feature of Kindle.  Just click on an unfamiliar term and its definition is instantly provided.  I prefer to hold an original book in my hand while reading but here is a good reason to go digital.

Meanwhile Bethia holds our attention.  She’s gone rapidly from 12 to 17 and has become a sexy young woman.  Still she is confined by the anti-feminist mores of the age.  As she puts it, “Silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.”  And it is time for the island youth to move on.  Caleb and two or three others aren’t quite ready for college admission so they go to the mainland to a finishing school.  Bethia goes along as a general servant to help pay tuition costs.  And the next year Caleb, and two others from the Island, gain admission to Harvard, which had been founded 30 years earlier.  Bethia gets a job as a dining room maid.   She loves the location because this is also the area where the main college lectures are given.  Of course she listens in while pretending to run the service window.

As expected, Caleb receives Harvard’s first diploma for an Indian lad.  Young men are all around at the all-male Harvard College.  One grad student, son of Harvard’s president, gets Bethia’s attention and they marry, on her terms.  She is an unforgettable character in our literature, smart, sexy and determined.

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