Criss-Crossing Between Worlds With Caleb's Crossing
Geraldine Brooks works her historical fiction magic once again, proving that with the tiniest thread of historic fact she can create a novel rich in detail, taking the reader to another time and another place.
In Caleb's Crossing, the historic fact is that a Wampanoag named Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck graduated from the Indian College of Harvard College in 1665. Around this seed of truth, Brooks creates plausible plot, well-developed main characters, and a setting that is rich with historically accurate details.
The narrator, Bethia Mayfield, is a 15-year-old girl living with her family in a missionary outpost on Martha's Vineyard. Charged with converting the “natives,” Bethia's father ministers to them and educates them in the ways of the white settlers.
Bethia's voice is authentic; this is a diary of sorts, and her vocabulary, personal asides, and references to scripture reflect her emotions as the tale is told. When the novel opens, she has carried on a clandestine and plutonic friendship with Caleb for about three years. As Caleb crosses from one world to another, both physically and spiritually, Bethia is peeking into his world, learning the Wampanaontoaonk language and becoming cautiously curious about the parallels between his native customs and her Christian beliefs.
The hardship and tension throughout the book are palpable. Meager rations and illness are common, as are clashes between the island's native inhabitants and the English settlers. As one who has visited both locales more than three centuries later, the physical contrast between the relatively untouched island and the dirty, crowded village of Cambridge was especially interesting.
Because Caleb's Crossing is written in the first person, from Bethia's point of view, we only ever see him through her eyes. She is observant, however, and tunes in to his body language in order to glean what he may be thinking or his motivations. We learn Caleb's story through Bethia's journal, but it is she who we truly get to know. Although she doesn't say so directly in Bethia's voice, I suspect Brooks may be making a point that they both suffer from discrimination from the white settlers, Caleb due to his race, and Bethia due to her gender.
Fans of Brooks' previous novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning March, Year of Wonders, and People of the Book, won't be disappointed. Newcomers to her work will be treated to a bit of history, an engrossing story, and a snapshot of a strong woman.