August 5, 2011

Review: Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing: A Novel

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.

Caleb's Crossing is a historical novel told in three parts. It tells a highly fictionalized tale of "Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wopanaak tribe of Noepe (Martha's Vineyard), born 1646, and the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College." (from the Author's Note). The story is told in three parts, through the eyes of a female colonist and friend of Caleb's, Bethia Mayhew.

The first part takes place in 1657, and relates how Bethia comes to be acquianted with the young brave. In Bethia, we have a girl who is strong and brave, but straitened by the times in which she lives. Her family came into possession of the island through what they consider fair dealing with the native tribes (rather than the land grabs that were more common). Her grandfather is the magistrate of the island, and her father the minister. Bethia longs to know everything. She's learned to read and write (English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) through a combination of lessons from her father and through sly listening in on his more advanced lessons to her older brother. She's learned the language of the natives through the same manner. Feeling strangled by the society in which she lives, Bethia often wanders the island, searching for sustenance for her family. In this manner, she comes unexpectedly upon Cheeshahteaumauk (who she quickly renames Caleb), and they become fast, though secret, friends.  Her father's zeal to convert the native islanders to Christianity is given a boost when smallpox sweeps he tribe after he is humiliated by Caleb's uncle; the tribes consider the pox perhaps a punishment from Mayhew's God. Caleb is sent to live with the Mayhews.

In part two (1661), Bethia's world is shattered when her beloved baby sister dies (her mother died in that child's birth), quickly followed by her Father. In order to assure her brother's acceptance at a school in Cambridge that will complete his preparation for Harvard, Bethia is bound into a four year indentured servitude to the headmaster. She journeys hence with her brother, Makepeace, Caleb, and another Native American boy, Joel, to find privation that she'd not imagined before. Her master is kind, but the treatment of the Native boys that she calls friend is deplorable. We meet a female Native scholar here, as well, Anna, and suffer miscarriage of both a child that was unknown to all, and of justice, when the father fails to be brought to justice. A love triangle, of sorts, is introduced at this point, as Bethia must choose between her friend/former suitor back on the island, and the Harvard educated son of her master. We finish this section with the impending graduation from Harvard of Caleb and Joel (Makepeace has long since dropped out of the picture).

The third, and weakest, section begins in 1715. An aged Bethia is reminiscing about her marriage (I won't say to whom), early married life, and the ultimate fate of Caleb and Joel. The weakness of this section is in it's very disjointed nature. It jumps back and forth in time, perhaps indicating the mental state of the aged narrator, but I found it nonetheless jarring.

I enjoyed this book, as I've enjoyed all of Brooks' books. Her prose is spot on, as is her grasp of the times and the language of the times. Brooks is a historian, and it shows in each of her novels. I ended wanting to know more about the real Caleb, but, sadly, there is very little factually known about him. The biggest weakness, as in all of Brooks' novels, is her 'romance'. In no book, including this one, is it ever believable, nor does she seem comfortable writing such scenes. It's almost as if an editor (or perhaps Brooks herself) said, "This is a novel and you're a woman, so there has to be some romance." As insulting as that is to female readers and writers, more insulting is the perfunctory and uneasy way she deals with 'The Luv'. I'd far rather she skipped that and gave us more of the fabric of her characters' lives, because she excels in that sphere.

All in all, I enjoyed Caleb's Crossing, but I would have junked the romance and tightened up the third act. I'd give this three coffee cups out of five. Enjoyable, but not a don't miss.

As a post script to make you think, the second Wopanaak tribesmember to graduate from Harvard is Tiffany Smalley. She just graduated this year. 


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