"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!
Geraldine Brooks is a contemporary Australian novelist, but all her fictions transport us to other places and other times. From her 2001 Discover selection Year of Wonders to his 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning March to her 2008 bestseller People of the Book, each novel created a separate, completely believable microcosm. In Caleb's Crossing, we enter late seventeenth century Massachusetts through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the outspoken daughter of a Bay Colony Calvinist minister. With the piqued curiosity of an adolescent, she crosses borders to become friends with the title character, the son of a Wampanoag chieftain. The convergences and the disparities of their lives form the core of this arresting historical novel.
Pulitzer Prize–winner Brooks (for March) delivers a splendid historical inspired by Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Brooks brings the 1660s to life with evocative period detail, intriguing characters, and a compelling story narrated by Bethia Mayfield, the outspoken daughter of a Calvinist preacher. While exploring the island now known as Martha's Vineyard, Bethia meets Caleb, a Wampanoag native to the island, and they become close, clandestine friends. After Caleb loses most of his family to smallpox, he begins to study under the tutelage of Bethia's father. Since Bethia isn't allowed to pursue education herself, she eavesdrops on Caleb's and her own brother's lessons. Caleb is a gifted scholar who eventually travels, along with Bethia's brother, to Cambridge to continue his education. Bethia tags along and her descriptions of 17th-century Cambridge and Harvard are as entertaining as they are enlightening (Harvard was founded by Puritans to educate the "English and Indian youth of this country," for instance). With Harvard expected to graduate a second Martha's Vineyard Wampanoag Indian this year, almost three and a half centuries after Caleb, the novel's publication is particularly timely. (May)
From the Publisher
Praise for Caleb's Crossing
“Caleb’s Crossing could not be more enlightening and involving. Beautifully written from beginning to end, it reconfirms Geraldine Brooks’s reputation as one of our most supple and involving novelists.” —Jane Smiley, The New York Times Book Review
“Brooks filters the early colonial era through the eyes of a minister’s daughter growing up on the island known today as Martha’s Vineyard…[Bethia’s] voice – rendered by Brooks with exacting attention to the language and rhythm of the seventeenth century – is captivatingly true to her time.” —The New Yorker
“A dazzling act of the imagination. . .Brooks takes the few known facts about the real Caleb, and builds them into a beautifully realized and thoroughly readable tale…this is intimate historical fiction, observing even the most acute sufferings and smallest heroic gestures in the context of major events.” —Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe
“In Bethia, Geraldine Brooks has created a multidimensional, inspiring yet unpredictable character…Bethia’s forbearance, her quiet insistence, the way she creates her life using the best of whatever is handed to her, puts the struggles of American women today in perspective.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times
“Original and compelling. . .[Brooks’ characters] struggle every waking moment with spiritual questions that are as real and unending as the punishing New England winters.”—Paul Chaat Smith, The Washington Post
In 1965, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck of Martha's Vineyard graduated from Harvard, whose 1650 charter describes its mission as "the education of the English and Indian youth of this country." That much is fact. That Caleb befriended Bethia Mayfield, the free-spirited daughter of the island's preacher, is of course fiction—but it's luscious fiction in the capable hands of Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks (March). As one might expect from Brooks, Bethia is a keen and rebellious lass, indignant that she should be kept from book learning when her slower brother gets the benefit of an education. She first encounters Caleb in the woods, learning his language and ways while stoutly arguing her Christian beliefs; later, Bethia's zealous father brings Caleb into the household to convert him. And so begins Caleb's crossing, first from Native to English Colonial culture and then from the island to Cambridge, where he studies at a preparatory school before entering Harvard. Bethia ends up at the school, too—but as an indentured servant. VERDICT Writing in Bethia's voice, Brooks offers a lyric and elevated narrative that effectively replicates the language of the era; she takes on the obvious issues of white arrogance, cultural difference, and the debased role of women without settling into jeremiad. The result is sweet and aching. Highly recommended. [Prepub Alert, 11/15/10.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
The NBA-winning Australian-born, now New England author (People of the Book, 2008,etc.) moves ever deeper into the American past.
Her fourth novel's announced subject is the eponymous Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wampanoag Indian tribe that inhabits Massachusetts's Great Harbor (a part of Martha's Vineyard), and the first Native American who will graduate from Harvard College (in 1665). Even as a boy, Caleb is a paragon of sharp intelligence, proud bearing and manly charm, as we learn from the somewhat breathless testimony of Bethia Mayfield, who grows up in Great Harbor where her father, a compassionate and unprejudiced preacher, oversees friendly relations between white settlers and the placid Wampanoag. The story Bethia unfolds is a compelling one, focused primarily on her own experiences as an indentured servant to a schoolmaster who prepares promising students for Harvard; a tense relationship with her priggish, inflexible elder brother Makepeace; and her emotional bond of friendship with the occasionally distant and suspicious Caleb, who, in this novel's most serious misstep, isn't really the subject of his own story. Fascinating period details and a steadily expanding plot, which eventually encompasses King Philip's War, inevitable tensions between Puritan whites and upwardly mobile "salvages," as well as the compromises unavoidably ahead for Bethia, help to modulate a narrative voice that sometimes teeters too uncomfortably close to romantic cliché. Both Bethia, whose womanhood precludes her right to seek formal education, and the stoical Caleb are very nearly too good to be true. However, Brooks' knowledgeable command of the energies and conflicts of the period, and particularly her descriptions of the reverence for learning that animates the little world of Harvard and attracts her characters' keenest longings, carries a persuasive and quite moving emotional charge.
While no masterpiece, this work nevertheless contributes in good measure to the current and very welcome revitalization of the historical novel.