"Who are we, really? Are our souls shaped, our fates written in full by God, before we draw our first breath? Do we make ourselves, by the choices we our selves make? Or are we clay merely, that is molded and pushed into the shape that our betters propose for us?"
These are pressing concerns for the spirited young heroine of Geraldine Brooks's absorbing new historical novel, Caleb's Crossing. Bethia Mayfield's forbidden friendship with Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wôpanâak tribe of Martha's Vineyard, whom she first meets as a 12-year-old sent to dig clams for her family's supper, changes both their lives. While Caleb teaches Bethia to walk silently through woods without leaving a trail and to name and gather the island's wild bounty, she teaches 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 Christian culture to become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, in 1665.
While Caleb is loosely based on an actual person, born around 1646, Brooks's narrator, Bethia Mayfield, is a wholly fictional creation. With this headstrong, intelligent heroine who chafes against the constrained status of women imposed upon her by her patriarchal minister father and magistrate grandfather, Brooks returns to several pet themes prominently featured in her last two books -- Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005) and People of the Book (2007): the sexism, racial prejudices, religious strictures, and pedagogical practices of earlier eras. In Brooks's novels, a high value is placed on books and scholarship.
Bethia, like Brooks's other sympathetic young heroines, leans toward modern, proto-feminist sensibilities -- which makes it easy for contemporary readers to empathize and identify 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 up by eavesdropping while slaving over his dirty linens and daily bread! How frustrating that "silence was a woman's sole safe harbor." The effect, at times, has the simple forcefulness of children's literature aimed at stirring 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 our enlightened, liberal sensibilities about race and domestic help against nasty attitudes from the not-so-distant past.)
Born and raised in Australia, Brooks sets her books in places she knows firsthand: parts of March unfold near her Virginia residence, and parts of People of the Book are set in Bosnia, where she worked as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Caleb's Crossing is rooted in Martha's Vineyard, Brooks's current home -- and her love for the island comes through in lush descriptions of its natural beauty: "This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet," she writes.
The effectiveness of historical fiction depends to a great extent on voice and details, and Brooks again proves her mastery of both. Bethia's narrative is steeped in a world where misfortunes -- including the untimely deaths of several siblings and her parents -- are thought to be just punishment by a vengeful God for sins that include "thirsting for forbidden knowledge" and despair: "Break God's laws and suffer ye his wrath. Well, and so I do. The Lord lays his hand sore upon me, as I bend under the toil I now have -- mother's and mine, both. The tasks stretch out from the gray slough before dawn to the guttered taper of night," 15-year-old Bethia writes.
Brooks captures both the cadences 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 beloved home in bright and airy Great Harbor -- now called Edgartown -- Bethia describes the "smear and stench of English industry" in the "unlovely town" of Cambridge, where she is indentured as a servant in exchange for her brother's tuition at Master Corbett's Latin preparatory school: "cold and clemmed, and all is drudgery."
The story of Caleb's experiences at Harvard is less familiar than Bethia's personal saga of a young woman making her way in the world against cultural obstacles. Grounded in research -- including a "hair-tearingly aggravating" early history of the college replete with "reflexive racism" -- Brooks's animation of this little-known facet of American history underscores why one reads historical fiction. In an afterword, the author helpfully sets the record straight "by distinguishing scant fact from rampant invention." She also notes that, while other Native Americans from Martha's Vineyard have completed graduate degrees at Harvard since 1665, it is only this spring that the first Wôpanâak from the island since Caleb is due to receive an undergraduate degree there -- and a woman, no less. Progress!