Caleb's Crossing Is Really Bethia's Story
As I lay in bed on Sunday morning, I felt like a slothful, gluttonous harlot. I was most certainly in the thrall of Satan as I drank my third cup of creamy coffee, lounging around in my pj’s reading this novel, while totally siding with the Wampanoag and thanking my lucky stars that I wasn’t born in the late 1600s as the daughter of a Puritan minister.
Caleb's Crossing, the latest historical novel from author Geraldine Brooks, is the kind of novel that makes you appreciate your own modern life. It is filled with the grind of daily physical labor, deprivation, disease, bitter cold, layers of mud, tragedy, sin and heart breaking guilt. And while I may operate under some level of internal guilt, it is nothing in comparison to the Puritan Calvinistic belief that every sin, even those small sins that everyone commits (if you believe in that sort of thing), will be returned upon you and yours ten fold, swiftly and cruelly by a powerful and vengeful God. Innocently meet a young Native American boy without telling your parents, and something horrible will befall your family. Drink a little hallucinogenic Indian mead, and again, something horrible will befall your family leaving you racked with a suffocating guilt. Yet as bleak and painful as it was, I loved this book. Set in the 1660’s in what will become the American colonies, Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of early Puritan settlers and their interactions with and mistreatment of the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans as they all live in what is now Massachusetts, specifically Martha’s Vineyard.
Brooks clearly did an enormous amount of research to create this novel. It is historically accurate, beautiful and descriptive, and I felt many times like I was walking the beach along Martha’s Vineyard, picking up shells and hiding in the dunes to capture an hour to myself, with a sea breeze blowing through my tucked up hair. The island is one of the strongest characters in the book. It constantly draws the other characters back, pulled by the fresh air and open clear sky. And the scenes set in nature are some of the most joyful and happy of the book. In sharp contrast to the wild island climate, this novel is written with a formal and historical syntax which certainly places the reader into the time period immediately. Wonderful words like posset, bever, the buttery, board (for table,) chilblains, and Wampanoag words like wetu, sonquem, and pawaaw, set the scene and time, placing the reader right there next to the characters, in a time before America was even America.
Brooks lightens up this stiff historical mood by narrating the book from the perspective of a young woman writing a diary about her childhood. Though this isn’t the type of childhood that I’m guessing most of us have had. Bethia Mayfield’s childhood is a rigid, hard scrabble existence. The daughter of a Calvinist preacher and third generation settler, she has her role, and it is firmly in the home learning domestic duties from her mother and helping with her siblings, all while trying to secretly absorb the flawless classical education that her less intelligent brother receives. Bethia is sharp as a whip, independent and decidedly head strong. I suffered with her as she was denied the education, freedom and autonomy she so desperately craved, but bravely stole for herself in tiny, swift moments.
Many historical authors make the mistake of creating these fiercely independent female protagonists that don't fit into the culture and religious norms of the time. Being independent and desirous of education and self fulfillment may make these protagonists more relatable and interesting to the modern reader, but in pre-colonial Calvinist Massachusetts, this kind of bold, vocal, self-aware woman would have been exiled, imprisoned or burned as a witch. Brooks does a wonderful job of creating a female narrator/protagonist in Bethia, who is a questioner and seeker but is still a product of her time and not ours. Brooks has infused within Bethia an inherent confusion and curiosity of the mind, often asking herself, “How is this right to my own people when it feels so wrong to me?” But she still wants to placate her father. She still believes that the Wampanoag people they share the island with should be converted to Christianity and are under Satan’s influence. So whose voice must she listen to? Her own, that at its core feels right and true but would label her a heretic in her community? Or her father Pastor Mayfield and the paternal guardians who can't see her for who she truly is, blinded by biblical and cultural beliefs based on gender? This is the crux of the book. And still somehow, despite these obstacles, Bethia creates a satisfying life for herself. Someone who can see Bethia for exactly who she is and as an equal is Caleb, the Wampanoag boy for whom the book is titled.
And this is where I struggled just a bit. While Bethia is the narrator of the book, Caleb is harder to connect with as a reader. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted his story to be the true centerpiece of the book, and it wasn’t. I enjoyed Bethia’s story and her voice, and in a novel marketed to female readers in my age range, which clearly this book is, I can understand why Brooks chose Bethia as the protagonist and narrator. But I wanted more of Caleb. I would have loved to see the book split between Bethia and Caleb, with each narrating different chapters. But instead, Caleb becomes a supporting character. Steadfastly adhering to his own moral code, rent between two religions, two peoples and two languages and fitting in nowhere, Caleb, as the first Native American man to graduate from Harvard, is the most intriguing, unique and engaging character in the book. But I felt Brooks kept him at arm’s length. In their first meetings as children, Bethia and Caleb have a loose easy friendship, but as time, distance and cultures force them apart, the reader is forced away from Caleb as well. Caleb is a loyal friend to Bethia. I respected the fact that Brooks never relied on turning their relationship into a romantic one, but I struggled with the title. This was really Bethia’s book. So much more about Caleb could have been revealed, and I felt Brooks chose to use Bethia, an easier task, instead of venturing into Caleb’s head. I was left wanting more. More from Caleb and more from Bethia. I think this novel could easily have been 400-450 pages long. The story is powerful enough to sustain that kind of length, and Brooks’s writing is graceful enough to keep the reader enthralled. She could have given more time to Bethia’s adulthood, which was rapidly and tidily summarized in the last thirty pages, and more engagement with Caleb, either as a shared narrator or at least more of his personal internal struggles. But I suppose craving more story is a good thing.
Despite these flaws, I highly recommend this novel. The depth of the characters, the religious and cultural severity of the time period, and the devoted sense of friendship and family in the face of overwhelming tragedy and adversity was inspiring, challenging and deeply moving to me. I found myself thinking about these characters even days after I’d finished the book. For me, this line from the end of Caleb’s Crossing captures the essence of Bethia and Caleb’s stories perfectly, and frankly, all of our stories: “In this fallen world, such is our condition. Every happiness is a bright ray between shadows, every gaiety bracketed by grief. There is no birth that does not recall a death, no victory but brings to mind a defeat.”