Crossing Paths, Lines, and Eras in "Caleb's Crossing"

BlogHer Review

"Crossing," I thought. "What did Geraldine Brooks mean with her title? That's a loaded word." For the first third of the novel, though, the only thing "Caleb's" was crossing was ... me.

In Caleb's Crossing, the author establishes her protagonist, Bethia, in place and time, a 17th-century Puritan girl, living as one of the first white settlers on Martha's Vineyard, living alongside the Wampanoag tribe.

Brooks worked hard to impart a sense of place and experience. You can sense the island's stark beauty; the backbreaking work it took to survive; the unease between two cultures and the isolation that led a young girl to go crossing (uh-huh) tribal and societal lines and secretly befriend a Wampanoag boy.

But I had to work hard to feel a part of this world, because of Brooks' language choices. Bethia's interior monologue felt very modern in its spare self-awareness, so the use of archaic vocabulary would jar me out of the narrative; other times, a modern description would do the same ("Sensual mouth?" Would a hellfire-fearing Puritan girl even know what that meant?). The only times I felt really connected to Bethia's blazing intellect and steely personality were when she clashed with her brother Makepeace, who resented the education she so yearned for.

Eventually, the plot kicks in, and the book really begins about a third of the way in.

Caleb leaves for the mainland to get a Western education -- his character is based on the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665. Forced by circumstance to cross the same water and live in the same town, Bethia dwells in a much different space. Her frustration and determination bubble hot when she faces loss, a changed social position, and the realization that the only choice that is hers to make is whom to marry.

The contrast between Bethia's fire and Caleb's remoteness spurs the former friends to cross each other at times, as they react to repression differently.

The most interesting use of "crossing" in this book is religious. Bethia views her tribulations as her duty to God. But Caleb sees his conversion as an expedient: "I will go now to this Latin school, and the college after, and if your God prospers me there, I will be of use to my people and they will live." Though his faith is false, Caleb has the true cross to bear.

Bethia's reactions to circumstance turn out to be guided not by her faith but by a compulsion to learn and to express that forces her to cross lines. She is a person outside her time, a voice and a yearning so modern they are -- if anachronistic -- definitely relatable.

Caleb's choices are harder to feel. He remained an enigma to me, as much so as the historical Caleb. Brooks is ultimately vague about whether Caleb's sacrifice was worth the cost -- which is intriguing as a comment on Christianity, but frustrating to me as a reader; Caleb's character seemed to fade out at the end.

But though Bethia's path was the more engrossing, what stayed with me after I finished the book was Caleb's story, balanced upon a point in time in which two histories of the American continent crossed.