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The Crossings Between Cultures
on May 3, 2011
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.