What becomes of those who independently and courageously navigate the intellectual and cultural shoals that divide cultures? Is it truly possible to make those crossings without relinquishing one's very identity?
Geraldine Brooks poignantly explores these questions in her latest novel, Caleb's Crossing. The story is based on sketchy knowledge of the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk - the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College -- and a member of the Wampanoag tribe in what is now Martha's Vineyard.
This is truly a work of imagination since the sources on Caleb's brief, tragic, and remarkable life are scant. The voice belongs to the fictional Bethia Mayfield, a minister's quick-minded daughter who gently (and sometimes, not so gently) defies the rigid expectations of a Calvinistic society that demand silence and obedience from its womenfolk.
As outsiders, both Bethia and Caleb - who meet on the cusp of adolescence - quickly bond and form a lifelong friendship. On the sly, Bethia absorbs the language and the cultures of the Wopanaak tribe while out in the field; at home, she secretly absorbs lessons that are meant for her brother Makepeace.
Eventually, both serendipitously find themselves at Cambridge. Caleb's Harvard education - conducted in the classical languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew - is funded by rich English patrons as an experiment as to whether "salvages" can be indoctrinated into Christian culture alongside the dismissive colonial elite. Bethia goes along with Caleb and Makepeace as indentured help, striving to remain in close proximity to scholars and avoid her fate as yet another small settlement farm wife.
There are plenty of twists and turns, trauma and heartbreak, celebrations and sadness along the way; after all, Geraldine Brooks already has a reputation as an absorbing story teller who is able to imaginatively use history to fictional ends. And it would be unfair to even allude to some of these page-turning plot developments.
The themes, though, are fair game. This novel particularly shines when it touches upon matters of faith, which rely heavily upon John Cotton, Jr.'s account of his conversations with native islanders in the 1660s missionary journals (according to the author in her epilogue). The pantheistic view of the medicine men is placed in a high-stakes battle against strict and judgmental Calvinism time and again. Bethia muses, "It galls me, when I catch a stray remark from the master, or between the older English pupils, to the effect that the Indians are uncommonly fortunate to be here. I have come to think it is a fault in us, to credit what we give in such a case, and never to consider what must be given up in order to receive it."
Ms. Brooks drums that point home - sometimes a bit too firmly, not relying enough on the reader to form his or her own conclusions. Still, there is intense observation in the "civilizing" of Caleb's crossing to the world inhabited uneasily by Bethia. She reflects, "In that shimmering, golden light I saw the wild boy I had met here four summers past, no longer wild, nor boy. The hair was cut short and plain, the fringed deer hide leggings replaced with sensible black serge. The wampum ornaments were gone, the bare mahogany arms sheathed now in billowing linen. Yet neither was the youth who stood before me some replica of a young Englishman..." The story of Caleb and Bethia is part of an age-old battle of repressive and misguided individuals who callously use religion to assert dominancy, superiority, and control over others.
As a result, destiny and preordination wrestle as the boundaries of both cultures are movingly explored in a voice that may be described as "period language." From the natural beauty of an early Martha's Vineyard to the drafty dormitories of Harvard College, this fictional work includes a wallop of historical fact. Those who have thrilled to other Geraldine Brooks' absorbingly told novels - March, Year of Wonders, People of the Book--will find yet one more reason to rejoice.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.
I have always felt that Geraldine Brooks is a truly gifted writer but I always have mixed feelings about her books. I really liked YEAR OF WONDERS. I hated MARCH. I loved loved loved PEOPLE OF THE BOOK. So, I approached CALEB'S CROSSING with a little trepidation.
Brooks has a real gift in making history come alive in her fiction. In CALEB'S CROSSING, Brooks fictionalizes the life of first Native American to graduate from Harvard. There is very little in the historical record on Caleb but Brooks manages to flesh out a compelling tale told from the perspective of a young woman named Bethia Mayfield who befriends Caleb and becomes like a sister to him. Using Bethia's point of view was genius as it allowed Brooks to delve into the roles of women in the late 1600's. We see not only Caleb's story but that of a young woman who desires nothing more than to be educated in her own right. Bethia observes as her minister father attempts to convert the Wampanoag while he is ignorant of his daughter's friendship with Caleb and fluency in the native tongue. Caleb becomes a pet project of Bethia's father as the minister tutors him in preparation for entry into Harvard. A year later, Bethia finds herself in Cambridge as an indentured servant where she witnesses the pressures Caleb feels in trying to straddle the gap between his two worlds.
CALEB'S CROSSING is a wonderful book. The juxtaposition between Bethia's experiences and Caleb's makes for a truly compelling story. I'm not sure the story would have been as effective without Bethia's voice. I was completely absorbed by the tale. I think Brooks did an excellent job of demonstrating the pressures put on individuals who were attempting to bridge cultural and societal gaps.
BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. A wonderful and moving tale of two people trying to find their place in the world and the toll these actions took on them.
The best historical fiction takes historical fact and pulls us in by creating interest in characters of the time period. Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is one of the most versatile historical fiction writers of today. Her talent lays in takes a slice of history and creating a world we long to enter. Imaginatively conceived and exquisitely written with compelling characters, Caleb's Crossing will command your attention and demand your respect.
1660. Great Harbor (now Martha's Vineyard), Massachusetts. Bethia Mayfield anticipates the arrival of Caleb, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, to her home for tutoring with her minister father. Unperceived by her family, she and Caleb, who share a love of nature, have learned each other's languages and formed a friendship over the past few years. Her brother and Caleb, the first Native American to do so, enter Cambridge to prepare for studies at Harvard. Bethia feels at a loss when she leaves Martha's Vineyard to become a servant in the headmaster's home. Her love of learning prods her secret vigilance in listening to all the lessons.
Integral elements of the remarkable Caleb's Crossing are joy in learning, unexpected death, heartbreaking starvation, and the ever-present bond between Caleb and Bethia despite all hardship and prejudice against their bond. Knowledge equals power in this unique book. Caleb says, "And since it seems that knowledge is no respecter of boundaries, I will take it wheresoever I can...if necessary, I will go into the dark to get it." Intrigued?
You will find yourself reading in a leisurely fashion to fully savor the evocative prose. "And then I woke, on my cold pallet in this stranger's kitchen, with ice winds from the cracked window fingering my flesh and a snowflake melting slowly on the fireless hearth."
The characters are absorbing. The soulful narrative voice of Bethia has an ethereal quality. She is haunted by guilt, taking upon herself blame for a smallpox outbreak, a death during the delivery of a baby--all because of her secret relationship with Caleb. Caleb yearns to be a Pawaaw, or healer of his people. For him, knowledge respects no boundaries. He glows with appreciation of life, zest for learning, curiosity and love of nature.
The release of Caleb's Crossing coincides with an important Harvard University event. This May a degree will be awarded to Tiffany Smalley, the first Martha's Vineyard member of the Wampanoag tribe since Caleb to graduate. An official portrait of Caleb will be painted in commemoration.
To what does Caleb cross? Read Caleb's Crossing to find out. In the book, Ms. Brooks highlights this question: What are the effects of attempting to Christianize an already spiritual, established civilization? Her own opinion is not expressed. Instead, she tells Caleb's story with forthrightness and clarity, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions.
I thank Viking for providing a copy. The opinions expressed unbiased and solely that of the reviewer.
Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
on July 27, 2011
I won't bother to summarize the book as many have already done that very well before. Geraldine Brooks' writing is flawless and it is a great read but I felt greatly disappointed that we lost sight of Caleb about two thirds of the way through. Yes, he is there but always on the sidelines and only in the briefest of encounters. I would have liked the author to have delved more deeply into Caleb's life and struggle as he made that difficult passage from his island life to his life on the mainland as a student in the Englishman's world. We have Bethia's perceptions from a distance and very brief snatches of conversation. I did not feel that it was enough. His voice got completely lost as we focused on Bethia's transition from indentured servant and girl to freed woman making her own life choices. Brooks' has such a remarkable imagination, I would have appreciated getting more inside of Caleb's head. How did he deal with his angst or maintain his sense of self in a hostile world that understood him as 'salvage'? For example, the book reprints the Latin text in which the real Caleb 'discusses the myth of Orpheus as it relates to his own experience of crossing between two very different cultures." I assumed incorrectly that this remarkable text would have somehow been incorporated into the story. At least, I was hoping for a translation somewhere of this very special Latin text written in Caleb's hand. How did Caleb feel about that crossing? He, unfortunately, got left behind as Bethia's story took prominence.
Also, there was a clear tension/attraction initially between the two youths on the island. Are we to assume that Bethia simply never let any type of attraction with a 'salvage' cross her mind (even though her brother insinuates this possibility)? She seemed open enough to many different ideas why not the irrational nature of passion as well? What if she had felt some attraction to Caleb - she certainly felt attraction and great curiosity towards other aspects of native life (ie, the hellebore concoction that produced visions)? I didn't understand why this was left unsaid too. Caleb's inner world in this aspect is also missing. What kind of desire might he have felt? Was he attracted to Bethia and her many qualities that helped him make that crossing? Did he save himself in some kind of purist love from a distance towards her? He comes across in the end to me as the stereotypical 'noble Indian' wise, restrained and asexual in his search for knowledge in the white man's world.
I do love Geraldine Brooks' writing dearly and felt captivated by much of the novel. I believe, though, that she lost sight of Caleb somewhere along the way in her development of the Bethia character. Consequently, I don't think that the title of the story is apt. I wish she had written Caleb's Crossing from his point of view and not from Bethia's. Another way to do it would have been to give them each a first person voice and interweave their texts. The way it has been done I end the novel still asking myself - who was Caleb and what was the crossing like for him?
on May 5, 2011
Be warned all ye of the fundamental Christian theology leanings, your beliefs will be much challenged, contrasted with the Native American beliefs during the early years of settlement in 17th century Massachusetts when this country's long-standing Puritanical bible-thumping would establish itself.
Geraldine Brooks has chosen a teenage young woman, Bethia Mayfiield, as the first-person narrator, who would not normally have been equipped for such a task as the writer of brilliant prose. Many times I have found myself irritated at first-person narratives because I do not believe the narrator would have possessed the language required. But in this book, I find Bethia's writer's voice--a rather sophisticated syntax with rich vocabulary--convincing because the author has provided the reader with the information about her thirst for language and the rather unique and often devious ways in which she gained that knowledge.
She narrates a story that begins in 1660 in Great Harbor on Martha' Vineyard where white settlers--in this case a family headed by Bethia's minister father--share the island with the Wampanoag natives who inhabited that part of New England. It took me a few pages to warm up to the syntax which the author obviously mastered. Unfamiliar vocabulary is easily understood through context. And within a few pages, I found myself speeding up to my usual rather rapid silent reading pace.
The minister has set out to convert the pagan natives to Christianity while his daughter has set out to learn more about these people. And her prose shows how conflicted she becomes--she is filled with Calvinistic guilt--because the natives seem to have a much less hostile attitude toward land and the creatures on it than the white zealots.
In her wanderings she meets a young Wampanoag man, her age, whom she nicknames Caleb and who, by the end of the first section of the novel, has come to live with them so that he might learn the white man's ways--especially the language and the religion. In other words, the same story all of us have known about.
But this is not a trite work, not at all. In fact I suspect it will challenge many readers to rethink some of their own philosophies, especially about the way in which we treat each other and our planet.
I will not reveal the tragedies that these people endure. There are plenty.
The second part of the novel--and it is more than half of it--is set in Cambridge where Bethia has been sent to keep house and cook for a small group of young men including her older (and only living) brother, Caleb and another native young man who study at Harvard College, not at all like the Cambridge and Harvard we know today. She finds time to further enhance her own learning and also to write, often beginning a new chapter with an apology for something she wrote in the last because of the guilt she feels as she struggles with her attempts to play the role of a woman in those times which is at odds with what she wants for herself.
I highly recommend this wonderful novel.
on July 16, 2011
CALEB'S CROSSING is the first book I've read by Geraldine Brooks. I love historical fiction and came to this hopeful that I would find a new author to follow. I'm not going to give up on Brooks because she is a decidedly gifted writer of beautiful, lyrical prose, as close to poetry as prose can get without crossing the line...but I was somewhat disappointed with this book.
My first objection is that both the title and the publisher's blurb bill this novel as based on the 17th century story of Caleb, the first Native American to attend Harvard; however, Caleb is more object than subject here. He's not quite a prop, but he's close; definitely secondary to the real subject, Bethia Mayfield, the brilliant young colonist who narrates the story. The spunky young heroine who triumphs against overwhelming odds has become pretty cliché in fiction these days, and to be quite honest, I'm growing a bit tired of her. In CALEB'S CROSSING there's no relief since she is the first-person narrator of the entire book. As such, her personal story far overshadows Caleb's story.
Still, this novel provides superb historical insight into the early colonial period of America, and the breath-taking diligence with which Ms. Brooks researched the time, the period, and the setting is apparent on every page. She truly brings to life the relentless toil and hard-scrabble existence of our earliest settlers. The stark and severe Calvinism of the period permeates the story, just as it permeated life itself for these early colonials. That said, there is a bit of a problem (at least, for me): Sometimes the fastidious historical realism gets in the way of the story, especially when it's done in the bleak Calvinist tone in which this novel is steeped. As much as I love the window to another time that good historical fiction provides, and the sheer joy I get from reading gorgeous prose; I don't want either one to distract from a well-wrought story. In the case of CALEB'S CROSSING, they do distract.
The book is written in an archaic style, appropriate to the 1600's, lending a feel of authenticity to the story. It forces the reader to take their time and allow the natural rhythms of a slower-paced period to control the unfolding story. I commend Ms. Brooks for the mastery of language she demonstrates in being able to write like this. The novel is peppered with archaic words, but the author always provides a context for the word that gives the reader the gist of the meaning. The only problem is if you're a "wordaholic" like me, the gist of it isn't enough. I want to know the word's exact meaning and etymology. Unfortunately, most of the archaisms used were not in the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes pre-loaded on Kindle, which meant I was going to the enormous Oxford English Dictionary with maddening frequency. I finally had to give up reading it at bedtime, as there's no room in bed for me, my husband, and the OED.
In a novel such as this the theme of colonialism, the morality of imposing one culture on another, and the concomitant clash between imported and native religions, is inescapable. While it does seem to be the theme that the author intended to explore, I'm not so sure she was wholly successful. The narrow confines of a Calvinist-defined society are sensitively explored, but the portrayal of the Wampanoag Native Americans seemed thin and undeveloped. There was something Rousseauian, or perhaps New Agey, in their treatment in the novel. For me, the clash of cultures and the questionable morality of colonialism were severely eclipsed by the theme of oppression of women in a patriarchal setting. This may just be a function of the choice of a first-person young woman narrator, but whatever the reason, colonialism took a back seat to feminism in my view.
Be all that as it may, the book is still very worthwhile for its diligent historicism and the soaring beauty of the writing. It is plain the author is a master at her craft; I would only hope that the story-telling in the next offering by Ms. Brooks reaches the heights of her elegant prose.
Brooks is thorough and unsparing in this tale of courage in the face of bigotry, the sacrifices made by Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate Harvard College in 1665. To be an educated man of such a heritage is unheard of at the time, but Caleb captures the affection and respect of narrator Bethia Mayfield and her father, a minister devoted to spreading the word of God to the native tribes in 1660 Great Harbor, a small settlement on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. A secret friendship blooms between the young Bethia and Caleb, who teaches his new friend the Wampanoag language, customs and native plant lore. Cherishing a relationship that exists outside her family's circle, Bethia is thirsty for knowledge and education, restricted by virtue of her birth and profoundly limited in life choices. A temporary respite from societal restrictions and the ebullience of natural curiosity bind Caleb and Bethia together, as well as mutual trust, their histories linked as events place each in the other's orbit at Harvard, their individual futures fraught with hardship and loss.
A stickler for historical detail, Brooks roots her characters' experiences in fact, each chained by expectations to familial demands. Bethia's older brother, Makepeace, of smaller intellect than his sibling, chafes under her insatiable need to examine and understand, admonishing his sister at every opportunity; the Reverend Mayfair finds an audience in the natives, but runs afoul of Caleb's shaman uncle, who is violently opposed to the teachings and singular God of Christianity; and Caleb, preparing for Harvard with the minister and another Indian student, pays the price of his difference and his brilliance, relinquishing the open landscape of his youth for the confined and moldy corridors of academia in Cambridge. Though the novel stresses personal success and ground-breaking accomplishment, a paean to the purity and nobility of the mind, the historical reality is littered with the petty cruelties of racism and a class system that encourages fellow students to treat Caleb with scorn.
While Bethia turns to her God for comfort and forgiveness on a daily basis- sometimes more frequently as need dictates, she cannot help but admire Caleb's beliefs, though guilt-ridden by such aberrant attraction. The God of the colonists is pervasive, unyielding, the arbiter of all thoughts and deeds, those who fall outside the pale judged harshly. Yes, Caleb achieves his laudable goal, but at great personal cost, even Bethia's days made miserable by the demands of changed fortune and meager opportunity. This new country has broken from England, but is rigid in its mores, accommodation to the norm the only way to excel. Their lives entwined through friendship and a passion for knowledge, Bethia and Caleb claim their rightful places in history, but the journey is grueling, somber and perpetually joyless, subsumed by the demands of a society that withholds as easily as it bestows favor. Sadly, Caleb's achievement confers notoriety at the cost of all he holds dear. Luan Gaines/2011
Absolutely stunning book. I read from page 63 to the end in one sitting because I just could not put it down. Utterly lovely and heartbreaking.
Bethia, the narrator, is a strong female voice and beautifully written. The other characters are vividly drawn and just as affecting. The way Brooks has written the book - from three points in Bethia's life, but looking back on what has happened to bring her to that point - is very skilfully done and provides an arc to the narrative that gives the reader a sense of completeness. That she has used the small amount she uncovered about this real man's life oh so long ago to write this book shows her remarkable imagination and her talent for creating lives and whole histories from small kernels of truth.
Caleb and Bethia's lives intersect and cross over one another in both magical and tragic ways, but it is representative of the two very different worlds they come from and what so often happened upon these worlds' meeting. There is a true beauty to their friendship and story that even now, as I am writing this, brings me to tears.
Both characters are struggling to find their place in their ever-changing world. Bethia is trying to balance her identity as a Christian woman with that of a seeker of knowledge who craves and rejoices in learning; her conversations on this topic with others and her own inner thoughts and desires provide us with very interesting insight into how women's education and a woman's place were viewed at the time. Caleb is trying to stay true to the spirits and the Wampanoag way of life, while also finding a place for himself and his people so that they may survive these newcomers and the unstoppable change they bring. The dialogue between him and Bethia regarding their separate religions and traditions, as well as Bethia's own reflections, gives rise to very thought-provoking issues regarding faith, religion, spirituality, and culture. Is it possible to wed two different ways of thinking, two different belief systems? Does an attempt to do so automatically compromise one or both? How do we stay true to ourselves and our history, while also adapting in order to survive?
I took Caleb's Crossing out from the library, but will want to buy my own copy. It's an emotionally engaging and deeply moving work that I know I will want to reread. Raw as it left me feeling, I know this story will stay with me for many, many days, causing me to question and wonder.
on June 26, 2011
This is a beautifully written story, and I think it captures the harsh difficulties of 17th century New England. It's particularly effective in describing the fragility of life in the colonial world, the futility of a woman's position in society, and the dominance of religious influence. The storyline is compelling, and at times it is quite moving.
But something about it never clicked, and I'm struggling to identify why it didn't. I think the biggest problem is this: Though this book endeavors to tell Caleb's story, it really ends up being about Bethia. Caleb is just too simple... too compartmentalized to be very interesting. Like the "George Washington never told a lie" version of the man.
In fact, many of the characters are a little underdeveloped, and this gives the story a kind of breezy feel. Everything is just a bit too convenient, as if characters are drawn out in a way to move a story along... not because they're people with real depth.
To sum up: It's a good novel. But not a great one.
on December 6, 2011
It takes a lot to bore me, but much as I struggled to get interested in Caleb's Crossing, in the end it really left me wishing that I had not spent the time reading it when I have so many other interesting books in my to-be-read stack. As mentioned by another reviewer, the only reason I kept slogging through was because it was a book club selection. I enjoyed the historical aspects of the story, but much as others have said, I regret that very little was developed about Caleb after the first part of the book. Most of the story was about Bethia, which was ok, but it got a little old. Also, it would have been extremely helpful if Ms. Brooks had included a listing with definitions of the many 17th century words that were used. Some I could figure out, but others completely escaped me.