Kbojar Rediscovers Fiction with Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

Geraldine Brooks has been on that long list of authors I thought I might get around to reading someday. But despite being a voracious reader of novels in my early and middle years, I’ve been moving away from fiction and had started to worry that I was losing my taste for novels. I probably would never have read Caleb’s Crossing if hadn’t been for the offer of a free copy.

With Caleb’s Crossing, I’ve rediscovered the joy of getting lost in a novel and the pleasure of what only fiction can give -- a real feel for what it’s like to actually live in a different culture, a different time. I don’t want to read novels about people like me. I want that sense of entry into another world. And the fact that there is an historical basis for the novel -- there really was a Native American who graduated form Harvard in 1665 -- added to the enjoyment.

The story of the emotionally charged friendship of a young English girl, Bethia Mayfield, and a young Native American, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk is completely fictional. However, Brooks, through her extensive research into the history and culture of Native Americans and English settlers in 17th c. Martha’s Vineyard, recreates what we know of the reality of their world.

I much preferred the early part of the novel with its poetic evocation of the beauty of an unspoiled Martha’s Vineyard and the very moving, slowly developing friendship between Bethia and Caleb. In the second half of the novel evocative poetry takes a back seat to a powerful, page-turning narrative of the characters’ fate in 17th c. Cambridge.

Although retired, the old English-and-Women’s Studies teacher in me can’t help but think about how she might use this novel in the classroom. There’s the theme of exploring a different culture, as Bethia and Caleb try to understand each other’s worlds. A particularly moving example: Bethia is inconsolable after the accidental death of her young sister, Solace. Caleb is living with Bethia’s family at that time in order to receive instruction from Bethia’s father in preparation for his matriculation at Harvard. Caleb, too, is deeply distraught at the accidental death of Solace. The night before the burial Bethia sees him place something in Solace’s hand:

In the morning, I went privily to Caleb and asked what he had done, fearing that he had put into her hand what might be an un-Christian thing. He told me that it was a scrap of parchment on which he had made a fair copy of the scripture of our Lord, Suffer the little children...He had tied it up with his wampum beaded thong of deer hide, around the peg doll...that had been her chief plaything in her last month among the living.

“A medicine bundle such as pawaaws use," I said troubled. “ No,” he replied calmly, “Not quite...Why send her into thee earth without some token of the love we all of us bear for her? Your father preaches that not all the old beliefs are evil. If, as he fashions it, Kiehtan our creator God is Jehovah by another name, then why shun the customs we have that come from him, to give the departing a small gift of comfort from this world as they pass into the next?” (115-116)

Then there’s the theme of race and gender oppression. There's a long tradition of feminist works--Virginia Woolf’s Shakespeare’s Sister is perhaps the most famous example-- which explore the longing of a bright young woman for access to the world of learning, a world denied to her by virtue of her sex.

And finally, a theme which I would try (with probably only very limited success) to use as a motivational device: the incredible effort, the sacrifices Bethia and Caleb were both willing to make to have access to the wisdom contained within the covers of a book. Both Bethia and Caleb valued both sources of knowledge found in, and not found in, Harvard library. Both were looking for ways to reconcile two very different cultural/ religious traditions. And both were acutely aware of how knowledge of other worlds created distance between them and their families -- an experience familiar to many first generation college students. I would strongly recommend this to teachers of introductory college courses as well as to anyone looking for a beautifully written, totally absorbing historical novel.

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