The Brassy Bawdress: a review of Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

When I picked up Geraldine Brooks' forthcoming novel, Caleb’s Crossing, to be honest I wasn’t fussed about the title. I stupidly assumed—based on the cover art, gasp!—that “Caleb’s Crossing” was a geographic location. Mini-spoiler alert: I was wrong.

In the first few pages, I had smugly pegged the story’s narrator, Bethia Mayfield, because of her Puritan dialect and her Calvinist worldview. Happily, I was wrong about her, too. In reality Bethia is an ingeniously created, fictional personality. She provides a progressive, almost contemporary perspective to a piece of social history best known for its caricatures -- think Pilgrims in weird hats and Indians a la John Wayne movies.

Brooks skillfully uses Bethia to insert feminist dialogue into a society that unself-consciously spoke words like “forewhore” and “bawdress.” Oh, for the good ol’ days! Although I do sort of love the word bawdress. Since the novel is presented as a pseudo-journal spanning several decades, we are allowed to hear thoughts and commentary no woman would have been permitted to voice at that time.

When I say that Brooks uses Bethia’s voice skillfully, I really mean it. I never felt that any of her unexpressed thoughts were disingenuous or anachronistic. I actually imagined that Bethia wasn’t unlike me—if I was a 17th-century industrious, Calvinist, Puritan girl with a stronger stomach and sense of duty, that is.

Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, on the other hand, was a real man (whose name would be shortened to a more manageable “Caleb C.” in today’s school system). He was in fact the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard.

Sadly we don’t know much about the historical Caleb. Like much of Native American culture, any details we might have known have either died with the speakers of oral history, or have been purposefully suppressed and subsequently lost. Thus having the freedom to reconstruct Caleb as a character in a novel, Brooks conveniently allows Bethia and Caleb to meet. That little Pocahontas–John Smith moment in reverse is where all potential predictability ended.

I always admire a writer who is willing to do the unpopular thing: to remain unyielding against the temptation toward the easy route. It would be lovely if history read like a children's book, where all friendships lasted forever, love never failed, and family was always a safe haven. There’s little that’s easy about this book. It is fiction, but it is historical fiction, and Geraldine Brooks adheres to history's most challenging truths.

“Crossing,” I learned, is an apt word to use in the title, because so much of the novel’s themes are dichotomies each character must struggle between: violence and passion, educating and indoctrinating, obedience and independence, heritage and assimilation, faith and intellect. A writer who fluently presents these debates and the human truth on both sides is a writer worth reading. Geraldine Brooks happens to be one of them.

 

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