Lynn Harnett's Reviews > Caleb's Crossing

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine  Brooks
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May 11, 11

bookshelves: novel
Read in May, 2011

In 1665 Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, which was not the august institution it is now, but still the best America had to offer. Choosing Caleb (about whom little is known) as her focal point, Brooks paints a vivid, poignant picture of life in Puritan New England, isolated Martha’s Vineyard, and bleak, muddy Cambridge.

The novel is told in the voice of Bethia Mayfield, 16 when Caleb comes to live with her Martha’s Vineyard family to be tutored by her minister father. Her father is a strict but tolerant man, who believes it his duty to understand and convert the natives, whose pagan ways condemn them to hell.

But Caleb’s arrival is not Bethia’s first meeting with him. Unbeknownst to her family – or his – they have been carrying on a secret friendship for months, as Caleb reveals the island’s secrets to Bethia – the best clamming and fishing places, succulent plants, medicinal herbs – and they learn each other’s ways and languages and debate their radically different spiritual heritages.

Bethia, pious but chafing against the strictures limiting a girl in her society, blames these and even greater sins for the death of her mother in childbirth a year earlier. She begins her “spiritual diary” to “give an accounting for those months when my heart sat so loose from God.”

“At first, I followed this wild boy hungering after his knowledge of the island – his deep understanding of everything that bloomed or swam or flew. Soon enough a curiosity about an untamed soul had kindled, and this, too caused me to seek him out. But it was his light temper and his easy laugh that drew me close to him, over time, until I forgot he was a half-naked, sassafras-scented heathen anointed with raccoon grease. He was quite simply, my best friend.”

This idyll interweaves with the daily hardships of Puritan life, particularly for women, whose drudgery is perpetual and whose primary virtue is considered to be silence. Bethia learns her lessons of silence from her devout, uncomplaining mother, but uses hers to go unnoticed in the background and soak up the knowledge her father offers to her less able and autocratic older brother, Makepeace.

Her narrative moves from the island to Cambridge where she goes as a maid while the boys learn their lessons, and back to the island. Harvard is virtually unrecognizable - a squalid place, with poor food, in great disrepair, and suffering for funds, although Bethia counts herself lucky to be able to overhear the lectures.

Brooks (winner of the Pulitzer for her novel March) tells a dramatic tale of tragedy, hardship, betrayal, power, and love where every deed, intention and even thought is judged by a harsh God – or His even harsher human representatives. Her characters deeply inhabit their world, agonizing when their human impulses clash with religious precepts and trying to fill the roles they have chosen or been born into.

Caleb is a less finely wrought character than Bethia and we never quite fathom why he decides to join the white man’s world. But it’s through Bethia’s eyes that we see him and, for all her sympathy with Indian ways, true salvation can only be found in her father’s world.

This is an involving page-turner, although the last 40 pages read like a very long Afterword. Brooks’ research is clearly extensive, though the novel never devolves into a history lesson. Instead she has breathed life into a part of our past that has shaped the nation – for good and ill. Readers will be grateful they were spared being born into it.
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