Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Caleb's Crossing

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Penguin Group, May 2011
Advanced Reading Copy, 306 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670021048
highly recommended

Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha's Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.
The narrator of Caleb's Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island's glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe's shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb's crossing of cultures.
Like Brooks's beloved narrator Anna in Year of Wonders, Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha's Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart. Evocative and utterly absorbing, Caleb's Crossing further establishes Brooks's place as one of our most acclaimed novelists.

My Thoughts:

In Caleb's Crossing, author Geraldine Brooks takes the scant information regarding Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, and fashions a fictional colonial historical narrative surrounding his life. "Caleb's crossing" refers to not just his crossing from the island to the mainland, but his crossing from one world into another. In actuality, though, this is the story of our narrator, Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Calvinist minister. It is set in Massachusetts during the mid-1600's, first at the settlement called Great Harbor on the island that is now Martha's Vineyard and later at Cambridge, by a young Harvard College.

While Bethia is the narrator and her life forms the core of this historical novel, her covert friendship with Caleb allows Brooks to explore the conflicts between the two cultures, as well as the conflicts created by the social and religious customs of the times. Bethia secretly becomes a friend to Caleb, a Wampanoag, before he comes to live with her family to study with her father. She secretly instructs him even while he teaches her his language.

As a girl any further education beyond the rudimentary lessons her father has already taught her is withheld from Bethia, so she must learn in secret, listening to the lessons her father teaches to her brother, and, later, the two Wampanoag young men, including Caleb. Bethia continues her clandestine learning when she ends up going to Cambridge to work while the young men receive further studies.

As she did with Year of Wonders, Brooks has taken a little known historical fact and used it as an inspiration for her novel.She does an excellent job bringing history to life with the language used and the period details. Brooks also thoughtfully shows the role of religion in the community and the conflicts between cultures. Bethia is an especially intriguing, well developed character, firmly placed in the historical setting. She is conflicted, wanting an education but knowing it is not allowed, and struggles to find a way to learn but stay with in the societal expectations of the times.

The character of Caleb, however, is not as well developed as one would expect. In the first section of the novel, when Caleb and Bethia meet as young teens and form a secret friendship, Brooks does a much better job with his character than in the remainder of the novel. His character fell flat in the end. It almost appears that Brooks felt inhibited to fully use her creative license to explore his character once he was at Harvard. Perhaps it would have been better to use his real story as inspiration for her novel, and then not worry about following the few known facts.

Geraldine Brooks is a brilliant writer, though, which helps to transport Caleb's Crossing from what could have been an average novel to a highly recommended one.

Disclosure: I received this novel through the Goodreads First Reads program.

Since this is an ARC, I have selected excerpts from Chapter I, found at Penguin books.

He is coming on the Lord’s Day. Though my father has not seen fit to give me the news, I have the whole of it.
They supposed I slept, which I might have done, as I do each night, while my father and Makepeace whisper together on the far side of the blanket that divides our chamber. Most nights I take comfort in the low murmur of their voices. But last evening Makepeace’s voice rose urgent and anguished before my father hushed him. I expect that was what pulled me back from sleep. My brother frowns on excessive displays of temperament. I turned on my shakedown then and wondered, in a drowsy way, what it was that exercised him so. I could not hear what my father said, but then my brother’s voice rose again.
“How can you expose Bethia in this way?”
Of course, once I caught my own name that was an end to it; I was fully awake. I raised my head and strained to hear more. It was not difficult, for Makepeace could not govern his tongue, and though I could not make out my father’s words at all, fragments of my brother’s replies were clear.
“Of what matter that he prays? He is only—what is it?—Not yet a year?—removed from paganism, and that man who long had charge of him is Satan’s thrall—the most stiff-necked and dangerous of all of them, as you have said yourself often enough. . . .”
My father cut in then, but Makepeace would not be hushed.
“Of course not, father. Nor do I question his ability. But because he has a facility for Latin does not mean he knows the decencies required of him in a Christian home. The risk is . . .” ....

Caleb is coming to live in this house.
In the morning, I did not speak of what I had overheard. Listening, not speaking, has been my way. I have become most proficient in it. My mother taught me the use of silence. While she lived, I think that not above a dozen people in this settlement ever heard the sound of her voice. It was a fine voice, low and mellow, carrying the lilt of the Wiltshire village in England where she had passed her girlhood. She would laugh, and make rhymes full of the strange words of that place and tell us tales of things we had never seen: cathedrals and carriages, great rivers wide as our harbor, and streets of shops where one who had the coin might buy all manner of goods. But this was within the house, when we were a family. When she went about in the world, it was with downcast eyes and sealed lips. She was like a butterfly, full of color and vibrancy when she chose to open her wings, yet hardly visible when she closed them. Her modesty was like a cloak that she put on, and so adorned, in meekness and discretion, it seemed she passed almost hidden from people, so that betimes they would speak in front of her as if she were not there. ....

Now, here, in the scant days I have left before Caleb comes to us, I have decided to set down my spiritual diary, and give an accounting for those months when my heart sat so loose from God. I have gathered what scraps of paper I could scavenge from my brother’s store, and I intend to use whatever moments I can eke out before each day’s weariness claims me. My hand is unlovely, since father did not school me in writing, but as this relation is for my own eyes, it makes no mind. ....

God alone ordains the damned and the saved and naught that I set down on these pages can change that. But since Caleb is to come here, trailing about him the smoke of those heathen fires and the scent of those wild, vision-filled hours, I need to be clear in my own mind and honest in my heart where I stand with regard to such matters, so that I can truly put them from me. I must do this for his sake, as well as for my own. I know that father sets great store in Caleb. He sees him, more than any other here, as a great hope to lead his people. Certainly Caleb seems to want this also; no one toils at his book more diligently; no one has gathered such a rich harvest of knowledge in the scant seasons he has had to study these things. But I also know this to be true: Caleb’s soul is stretched like the rope in a tug o’ war, between my father and his own uncle, the pawaaw. Just as my father has his hopes, so too does that sorcerer. Caleb will lead his people, I am sure of it. But in which direction? Of that, I am not in the least bit certain.

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