Caleb's Crossing: Bodice Ripper or Feminist Manifesto?

BlogHer Review

Too-smart-for-her-own-good teenager Puritan girl raised by a single and slightly oppressive minister father. Nothing to do but ride her horse, cook for her family, and wander along the rocky, wild shores of Martha's Vineyard all day. Rebellious and handsome slightly older Native American boy meets girl and they strike up an unlikely friendship, each learning something from the other, spending stolen moments in shared company, hidden from their closed-minded communities, experiencing intellectual, emotional, and spiritual awakenings in the secrecy provided by the beauty of the natural environment...you know where this is headed, don't you?

No. You don't. I thought I did, but I was wrong. So don't feel bad if you assumed that you were in for some hot Puritan white girl and young buck Native American loving. Geraldine Brooks wants you to keep turning the pages of Caleb's Crossing in anticipation.

Make no mistake, the story you DO get is worth turning the pages for. Brooks has stitched together a fictionalized account of Native American students who attend Harvard College in its earliest days. That sounds awfully dry, but it's not, because that's not actually what the novel is about. It's mostly about a young girl figuring out how to balance the expectations of her society with her natural desire to think and learn and explore the world around her and the people who inhabit it. As it happens, if you were a Puritan and a female, that was a bit of a challenge, as you were mostly expected to churn butter, pray, and keep your mouth shut. Bethia Mayfield, Brooks' protagonist, however, manages to learn Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and the native Wampanoag language to boot. Girlfriend is a bit of an overachiever, which occasionally gets her into trouble. She's like the Massachusetts Colony's own Jo March or Elizabeth Bennet; this character of the smart and willful and outspoken women living in the wrong place and time is an archetype by now, isn't it?

The story is good. The history is intriguing. The fact that Brooks manages to crank out these works of historical fiction based on fragments of times past from disparate continents and eras as if she's an expert, and she must be come to think of it, in all of them, is impressive. The interweaving of themes, feminism, racism, elitism, theism, naturalism, all kinds of other isms is coherent and seamless.

But. The novel is written in the first person from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, who speaks, as she would, like a person living in the 1600's in Massachusetts would speak...puritanically, formally, stiltedly. As a consequence, I often felt like I was reading a Harlequin romance. This was especially true during scenes between Caleb, the hot Wampanoag Native American best friend/"brother"/almost boyfriend to Bethia and Bethia. I was constantly waiting for the moment when someone's heaving bosoms would burst out of a bodice. When, finally, I came to a scene when Bethia and Caleb meet on a windswept expanse of beach and Caleb appears, "...hatless, shoeless, and without his hose so his long calves were bare. He had no doublet, and his shirt, sweat-soaked, clung to his chest" I was relieved to have my suspicions confirmed.

There's quite a bit of that drivel. I couldn't tell, ultimately, whether Brooks' was writing true to a form or whether my preconceived notions were coloring my interpretation. For most of the novel, I was distracted by the language, however, which is significant enough to mention.

Brooks did, I must say, write passages that warrant serious consideration. Bethia, noting the ease with which Caleb relates to a Native American woman, says, "Brotherly. Now of all the times in my life, did I wish Caleb truly was my brother rather than that selfish, imperious, weak-willed soul to whom fate had shackled me. If it were so, I would turn to him now..." I don't know if the message is intentional or not, I rather suspect that Brooks was more concerned with her thematic catalog of "isms," but what I most gleaned from Caleb's Crossing was this notion that the nature of our relationships with people - even the relationships we choose - are out of our control. No matter if we struggle mightily to will the tenor of those relationships to be a certain way, there is something in one of us or another that determines how we will be with each other that is not for us to decide, and fighting against this reality is an exercise in frustration.

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