Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Caleb's Crossing


The true story part of Geraldine Brooks' novel, Caleb's Crossing is that in 1665 a young man from the Wampanoag tribe on Martha's Vineyard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Everything else in this wonderful book is fiction. Writer Geraldine Brooks has taken that fact and built a history for Caleb and a window into American life a century before the Revolution.

Caleb's Crossing is narrated by Bethia Mayfield. She is witness and participant. Bethia lives in Great Harbor, a small settlement with her father, a Calvinist minister and her brother Makepeace. Bethia is twelve when the novel begins. Her mother has recently died after a long illness. The harsh religion of her upbringing has led Bethia to believe that her Mother's death was her fault. That it was brought on by her wicked ways. While her father tries to convert the Wampanoag, Bethia and Caleb share a secret friendship. They meet in the woods teaching each other their own languages and about their worlds. This is Bethia's first chance at tolerance and she takes it.

The Minister sees Caleb as his special project. Caleb gets to be part Pygmalion part Fresh Air Fund. After three years and a conversion, he is brought into the Minister's household not as a servant but as a student. Caleb's crossing is from savage to civilization. On the surface he has succeeded. He can talk about Philosophy and Mathematics in Latin, he can mix with the upper crust of Cambridge but Caleb has been persuaded to leave the only world he's ever known and enter a world where he will never belong.

Bethia's crossing is much less direct. Hers will not be a formal education with all the choices that might bring. Aside from what Caleb taught her, Bethia's learning has all been done by observation and eavesdropping. To her family she is little better than a slave so it makes sense when she is sold off as an indentured servant in order to pay for Makepeace and Caleb's formal education at Harvard.

Despite the title, the main character in Caleb's Crossing isn't Caleb it is Bethia. Though smart and clever, Bethia is a young woman of the 1600's and therefore under estimated and undervalued. Her Father's punitive religion has convinced her that she is unworthy and yet Bethia is hopeful, eager for the future. Since she is female she has come by her illegal eduction by listening at keyholes, her relationship with Caleb has to be confidential and her hopes for the future must stay hidden. She has to live her life behind a screen but her vision is crystal clear. She sees all and tells all in a unique and strong, colloquial voice.

Geraldine Brooks has written an engrossing and evocative novel that juxtaposes the similarities and differences between two powerless outsiders in colonial Massachusetts. Brooks has the talent and insight to elevate the straightforward story of Caleb's Crossing into historical fiction with a social consciousness that enlightens as much as it entertains.


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