Caleb's Crossing: How Can We Define a Good Life?

BlogHer Review

"Break God's laws and suffer ye his wraths. Well, and so I do." Such is the the premise of Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks as laid out in the first chapter by our narrator and heroine, Bethia. It's a defiant tone she sets, even as she describes her meek and humble lifestyle, learning details of her family's plans only by close listening when the men of her household speak.

On a fictionalized Martha's Vineyard, we meet Bethia in 1660 and are drawn into her sleeping quarters behind a curtain, her struggles to please her father, the settlement's preacher, and her colonial lexicon. As she narrates, the story of the novel is presumably about Caleb, a Native American boy who will be folded into the English community and prepared for matriculation at the stand-in for Harvard and a life among white people. Bethia describes her father's goals for Caleb as a pathway to converting the "salvages," and traces Caleb's successes over years even as her own family suffers a series of devastating tragedies.

Caleb does prosper as a student, but his story, we find, really serves as a point of comparison for Bethia's own unconventional life. We cheer her on as we find that she is more learned than most women of her time, and far more outspoken, and we commiserate when her opinions and actions are deemed improper or unfeminine.

I don't know about you, but I love an outspoken woman. And haven't we all gotten in trouble before for our opinions?

Caleb struggles with reconciling his native practices and beliefs with Christian teaching, and Bethia struggles with developing herself as a whole person according to what interests her against what is expected of her by her family and community. For each, the trade-offs are great, and the sacrifices significant. The entire novel is predicated on a sure Christian morality, but I am not sure that at the end of the story either of the main characters would be able to argue completely for God's grace or against his vengeance in their lives.

We're left to ponder: how can we define a good life? And at the end, how can we say if we've succeeded?

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