Caleb's Crossing and the Brontë Sisters

BlogHer Review

In the late 1600’s, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Bethia Mayfield is a Puritan and a Pilgrim, literally, the daughter of a Calvinist minister who has settled on Martha’s Vineyard and is attempting to convert and educate the Wampanoag who are native to the island. When she is still a young girl, Bethia befriends one of these converts, called “Caleb” in English, who in 1665 would become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Through her relationship with Caleb -- through him, with him, in spite of him, and because of him -- Bethia ends up with an unconventional education that she was previously denied due to her gender, a graduate of what we would now call “The School of Hard Knocks.”

From the second I started reading Caleb's Crossing I felt a familiarity with this story, a kind of “déjà vu all over again,” but it took me until the middle of the second section to figure out why -- the narrator, Bethia Mayfield, sounds an awful lot like one of my very favorite characters in literature, Jane Eyre, and Bethia’s relationship to Caleb is similar in many ways to the bond between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Bethia's original description of Caleb sounded so like the description of Heathcliff as I remembered it that I actually pulled out my college copy of the novel to re-read that passage.

There are marked differences in historical, geographical, and class settings, of course, but in so many ways, the fundamental plot of all three novels is the same, as Bethia asks:

“Who are we, really? Are our souls shaped, our fates written in full by God, before we draw our first breath? Do we make ourselves, by the choices we our selves make? Or are we clay really, that is molded and pushed into the shape that our betters propose for us?”

There’s a reason why Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are among my favorite books. A century and a half separates the heroines of the Brontë sisters’ novels and this one, and 150 years separates the publication of the earlier novels and this one, and yet the same story elements continue to be so compelling: love, respect, freedom, duty, self-discovery, self-acceptance. The more things change, the more things stay the same, I suppose, but I never tire of reading these individual stories and aching along with these women as they try to make everyone -- but especially themselves -- happy.

I respond very positively (and predictably) to these kinds of stories. It does no harm that I think that Bethia and I could be great friends -- well, we could be, if she existed today (if I attempted to travel back in time to the 1600’s I would no doubt be put in the stocks or tried as a witch). I greedily devoured every delicious, evocative word of Caleb’s Crossing. I am not familiar with any other works by Geraldine Brooks (although I probably should be, as a lapsed English major, since she’s won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but then again, I am a lapsed English major), but this novel certainly made me want to read more.

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