The latest novel by journalist and author Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing (2011), is aptly named, for it is full of crossings: the crossing between life and death, between island and mainland, between faiths, between one life and another. Yet these crossings are by no means restricted to the character of Caleb.
Caleb’s Crossing is based on the few facts known about the first Native American student, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, to graduate from Harvard College in the 1600s. On this scant historical record, Brooks has built a novel that revolves not around this young man, but around the fictional character of Bethia Mayfield, the novel’s narrator.
Growing up in the Puritan settlement of Great Harbour on the island that is now Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, Bethia is the daughter of a missionary minister. She is steeped in an environment of conflicting cultures, for she is at the coalface of one culture’s encroachment onto the physical and spiritual territory of another.
As a girl, Bethia is not allowed to take part in the lessons that her father gives to her older brother, even though she is brighter and more interested in ‘scholarly matters’ than he is. This discrimination rankles, but her rebelliousness is tempered by its conflict with the teachings of her religion. She learns in spite of her exclusion from formal education and, listening in on her father’s attempts to learn the local language of the Wampanoag people, she becomes fluent in Wampanaontoaonk.
It is because of her language skills that she strikes up a secret friendship with Caleb, the son of one of the island’s chieftains, and thus their two cultures meet and each begins to influence the other.
Later in the book Bethia asks herself if it would have been better for Caleb had she never met him, if she had never taught him English or shown him a Bible, so that he might have lived as his ancestors had before him. She makes much of the fact that she has changed his life, but he also changes hers, challenging her faith and further making her question the path that her father and brother have laid out ahead of her.
The story is powerfully told, achieving what could be seen as a key aim of the historical novel – evoking a sense of a world that is long past and that is utterly foreign to the reader. It does this not only through creating a unique voice for a fictional young woman who is constrained by her gender, her religion and her times, but also by not neglecting the reality of day-to-day existence.
Life in the 17th century is hard work, and Brooks does not neglect this in her storytelling – there is the endless drudgery of domestic work for the women, the challenges faced by settlers in a new colony, and the consistent influence of religion on every part of their lives. There is also the continued presence of death in the Mayfield family – at first, I wondered if this element was overdone, but its purpose in the shaping of Bethia’s story becomes clearer towards the end of the novel.
While Bethia pushes boundaries and in doing so is a character who readers of the twentieth century can easily identify with, she ultimately remains within the confines of her own world view, and does not stray too far from the path that her culture has shaped for her. She is unable to attend college with the men in spite of her intelligence, and she remains, throughout her life, a product of Puritanism. Nonetheless she manages to live in a way that does not leave her downtrodden under the boots of men. Her story seems, because of this, both realistic and uplifting.
Alongside Bethia’s struggle against the confines of her role as a female is the clash of cultures that is going on all around her. In Caleb’s Crossing, the Native American culture on the island is irrevocably changed in less than two generations. The Wampanoag’s spirituality has been replaced with Christianity. It is frightful to be confronted with the complete alteration of a culture in such a short space of time, and the novel allows no easy exit from the imagining of this reality.
Bethia aids and abets in this change through her friendship with Caleb, and so the novel offers no easy moral answers. This unusual young woman may be intelligent, kind and fair, seeing the Wampanoag people as equals and battling to be sure of her own faith, but in the end she does not become part of their culture – they become part of hers.
This review originally appeared on upstart.