There Are So Many Losses in Caleb's Crossing
Geraldine Brooks' novel Caleb's Crossing is about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University. The story takes place between the years 1660 – 1715. The story is told through a diary of sorts by one of the main characters in the book, Bethia Mayfield.
I believe this story has been told many times before, but this particular version is a novel approach, it’s told through the eyes of Bethia, a 12-year-old daughter of the local minister. I enjoy historical fiction a great deal, especially when it takes me back to a time in our nation’s history.
It took me a few chapters to really get into the story. But once I did, the story engaged me. In Brooks’ novel she uses many words in the English language that have become obsolete. Most of the time I could glean the words meaning by its context, such as the phrase “cackhanded work” or “lappity character”. Other words such as sennight and decoction helped set the time and place of her story.
The story begins with Bethia recounting her meeting with Caleb, a member of the Wopanaak tribe of Noepe. Which today is Martha’s Vineyard. In the telling of Bethia and Caleb’s meeting, and their shared exploration of the island, Brooks made me feel like I was running through the fields with these two characters. It brought back my own childhood and the carefree lifestyle of most children.
The 17th century was a very difficult time to live for most women. In Caleb’s Crossing you see these difficulties through the eyes of Bethia. I think anyone who has read up on the history of the United States knows the hard times and short lifespan of the people who were some of the first settlers to make this new world their home. But this story helps put those hard, difficult times in perspective and how it relates to the women of that time. Brooks really makes you feel what Bethia feels with the many losses that she experiences in her young life. You also get a good look at how religion ruled most everyone’s lives during that time.
Along with all of Bethia’s losses, she also had to bear the burden and scrutiny that comes with being the minister’s daughter. As Bethia writes in her journal it is no easy thing to be forever watched, and judged, as I must be as the minister’s daughter. I think she handled herself beautifully throughout the story.
Brooks gives you a very good sense and feel for the Native American people in this story, which I believe adds to its positive quality.
Two very strong themes run through this novel. The clash between Christianity and the Native American religion and the age-old argument of destiny (fate) versus free will. God has a role in both themes in my estimation Bethia struggles, as does Caleb with these issues throughout the story.
Overall, Geraldine Brooks’ writing is very good and because she uses true historical figures it made for a better story. That said I am not a fan of Native American history, because it has been told over and over again… how the white man came to America and stole the land from the Native Americans and infected them with the white man’s diseases. I do feel it is overdone.
Throughout the novel, I felt it was more Bethia’s story than Caleb’s. The story of Caleb’s Crossing was worth reading. In the end, I wish Brooks had written Caleb and Joel a better future. The losses were just too many to bear.