Have you ever read anything by Geraldine Brooks?
If not, get thee to a bookstore!
One of my favorite contemporary fiction writers, Brooks draws on the journalistic skills she honed as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, combining impeccable historical research and vivid storytelling to spin tales that transport her readers back in time. In her first novel, Year of Wonders, she takes us to rural 17th century England just as the plague hits an isolated mountain village. In the Pulitzer Prize winning March, Brooks offers a companion volume to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and imagines what Mr. March was up to while serving as a Union chaplain during the Civil War. In People of the Book, she plays international tour guide as she weaves a history of the people who created and protected the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest illustrated Jewish books.
Her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing, is a worthy successor to her earlier works. Set between the 1660s and 1710s in Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Caleb’s Crossing imagines the life of Harvard College’s first Native American graduate, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. The son of an island chieftain, Caleb meets Bethia, the daughter of a pioneering English preacher, one day while out hunting and the two strike up a forbidden friendship. Caleb initially resists Bethia’s talk about her one God, but a series of (unfortunate) events soon draw him closer to Bethia’s father and the promise of book learning that comes with the Christian education he offers. Eventually, Caleb and Bethia leave Martha’s Vineyard. Once in Cambridge, they broaden their horizons even while confronting the limitations their identities place upon them in a Puritan society with strict ideas about who an Indian and a woman should be.
Though the title of the novel refers to Caleb’s crossing over from Wampanoag society to English society, the story really belongs to Bethia. Indeed, the crossing she makes – from the obedient daughter of a Calvinist minister to an assertive, (unofficially) educated woman – changes her in ways that are no less profound. As a girl, Bethia shows curiosity and intellectual aptitude, but is told by her father, “Improve your wits usefully and honorably in such things as belong to a woman…It is no small thing to be a beloved wife, to keep a godly house, to raise sons of your own.” In crafting Bethia and showing the ways in which she simultaneously embraces her culture and expands her own possibilities within it, Brooks creates one of the more appealing protagonists I’ve encountered lately. It’s hard not to shout “You go, girl!” when Bethia, who compares herself early on to clay, “squeezed flat under the boots of other people,” keeps her family together, advocates for her Indian friends, refuses to settle for the marriage arranged for her, and finds love in an unexpected form – all the while firing off lines of Hesiod and Anne Bradstreet.
The one criticism I would make of the novel – and this probably stems from my days as a student and teacher of American history – is that, especially at the beginning, Brooks relies perhaps a bit too heavily on the “noble savage” stereotype, leading us somewhat lazily to conclude that Caleb – and the nature he represents – is good and the English – and the civilization they represent – are bad. In one scene, for instance, Brooks has Caleb thank a fish for the sacrifice of its life before eating it. In a following scene, she depicts Bethia’s brother Makepeace and his companions lustily butchering a live whale for its oily blubber. She does enough far more subtle work that shows the nuances of both groups to depend on any cliches.
That point aside, Caleb’s Crossing is a terrific read, with memorable characters and a smart, surprising plot. I definitely recommend it.