“Whoare we, really? Are our souls shaped, our fates written in full by God, beforewe draw our first breath? Do we make ourselves, by the choices we our selvesmake? Or are we clay merely, that is molded and pushed into the shape that ourbetters propose for us?”
These are pressingconcerns for the spirited young heroine of Geraldine Brooks’s absorbing newhistorical novel, Caleb’s Crossing. Bethia Mayfield’s forbidden friendship with CalebCheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wôpanâak tribe of Martha’s Vineyard, whom shefirst meets as a 12-year-old sent to dig clams for her family’s supper, changesboth their lives. While Caleb teaches Bethia to walk silently through woodswithout leaving a trail and to name and gather the island’s wild bounty, sheteaches him to read and speak English. Over time, she helps this”half-naked, sassafras-scented heathen anointed with raccoon grease”make the crossing between his native traditions and her English Christianculture to become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College,in 1665.
While Caleb is looselybased on an actual person, born around 1646, Brooks’s narrator, BethiaMayfield, is a wholly fictional creation. With this headstrong, intelligentheroine who chafes against the constrained status of women imposed upon her byher patriarchal minister father and magistrate grandfather, Brooks returns toseveral pet themes prominently featured in her last two books—PulitzerPrize-winning March (2005) and Peopleof the Book (2007): the sexism, racial prejudices, religiousstrictures, and pedagogical practices of earlier eras. In Brooks’s novels, ahigh value is placed on books and scholarship.
Bethia, like Brooks’sother sympathetic young heroines, leans toward modern, proto-feministsensibilities—which makes it easy for contemporary readers to empathize andidentify with her struggles. How enraging that her brother Makepeace, a poor,small-minded student, gets to study Latin and Greek, which she can only pick upby eavesdropping while slaving over his dirty linens and daily bread! Howfrustrating that “silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.” Theeffect, at times, has the simple forcefulness of children’s literature aimed atstirring a sense of righteous indignation in order to deliver reverberating,historically derived moral lessons. (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help similarly manipulates our emotions by playing ourenlightened, liberal sensibilities about race and domestic help against nastyattitudes from the not-so-distant past.)
Bornand raised in Australia, Brooks sets her books in places she knows firsthand:parts of March unfold near herVirginia residence, and parts of Peopleof the Book are set in Bosnia, where she worked as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Caleb’s Crossing is rooted in Martha’sVineyard, Brooks’s current home—and her love for the island comes through inlush descriptions of its natural beauty: “This morning, light lapped thewater as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkestvelvet,” she writes.
The effectiveness ofhistorical fiction depends to a great extent on voice and details, and Brooksagain proves her mastery of both. Bethia’s narrative is steeped in a worldwhere misfortunes—including the untimely deaths of several siblings and herparents—are thought to be just punishment by a vengeful God for sins thatinclude “thirsting for forbidden knowledge” and despair: “BreakGod’s laws and suffer ye his wrath. Well, and so I do. The Lord lays his handsore upon me, as I bend under the toil I now have—mother’s and mine, both. Thetasks stretch out from the gray slough before dawn to the guttered taper ofnight,” 15-year-old Bethia writes.
Brooks captures both thecadences and attitudes of English colonists with vocabulary to match:”square cap” for scholar, “salvage” for savage, and “sennight”for week. An unmarried pregnant woman is “bastard-bellied,””harlotized,” and “forwhored.” In contrast with her belovedhome in bright and airy Great Harbor—now called Edgartown—Bethia describes the”smear and stench of English industry” in the “unlovelytown” of Cambridge, where she is indentured as a servant in exchange forher brother’s tuition at Master Corbett’s Latin preparatory school: “coldand clemmed, and all is drudgery.”
The story of Caleb’sexperiences at Harvard is less familiar than Bethia’s personal saga of a youngwoman making her way in the world against cultural obstacles. Grounded inresearch—including a “hair-tearingly aggravating” early history ofthe college replete with “reflexive racism”—Brooks’s animation ofthis little-known facet of American history underscores why one readshistorical fiction. In an afterword, the author helpfully sets the recordstraight “by distinguishing scant fact from rampant invention.” Shealso notes that, while other Native Americans from Martha’s Vineyard havecompleted graduate degrees at Harvardsince 1665, it is only this spring that the first Wôpanâak from the islandsince Caleb is due to receive an undergraduatedegree there—and a woman, no less. Progress!