Caleb's Crossing: Expulsion from the Garden by the Sea
Like Bethia Mayfield, the narrator and heroine of Caleb's Crossing, I find my well-being profoundly associated with my surroundings. I’ve purposefully lived within sight of mountains more than ten years now because the landscape grounds me.
Feeling that personal connection to the natural world, it was easy to see the pathetic fallacy -- using the weather and natural environment to emphasize a character’s emotional state -- in Caleb’s Crossing. Throughout the novel, Geraldine Brooks represents the innocence of childhood and youth through an Edenic, unsullied natural environment on the island. As she tells us her story, Bethia reflects on her childhood when she was able to meet Caleb in the wilderness. For her, happiness is the freedom to roam, to learn about the natural world and shed her clothes to dance at a Wampanoag ceremony, unseen. Her health and spirits remain strong, even while her bother, Makepeace, avoids work and physical activity and remains a frustrated person, a narrower thinker for keeping to the confines of the town.
By contrast, Brooks describes Bethia’s first years in Cambridge in indentured servitude as an expulsion from her Edenic life on the island. After losing her mother, sister and father in the space of just a few years, the innocence of her youth is shattered once and for all when her brother and grandfather trade four years of her menial labor to send Makepeace to Harvard. To match her dark mood and unending grief, Bethia’s surroundings in Cambridge are damp, cold, unclean and ultimately prove a breeding ground for diseases of the heart, body and mind that infect multiple characters in the story.
Even as Bethia later weighs her choices as a free woman, she tells Samuel that if not for him, she would have been on the first ship back to her beloved island. The place figures deeply in her personal definition of happiness and freedom.
Ultimately, Bethia achieves fulfillment of both the heart with Samuel and of the soul on Martha’s Vineyard, but as she reflects on her life, we see that the island will never be Eden again. Too many of the old ways, as represented by Caleb and his uncle, Tequamuck, are already lost. Bethia and her family continue to find beauty in their natural surroundings on the island, but instead of Eden, it has become, as her son describes it, a refuge from the mainland and its wars, disease, drought and harsh winters. I can’t help but wonder if Brooks is writing herself and her deep ties to her home on Martha’s Vineyard into Bethia’s words here. Childhood Eden or adult refuge from a world that it “too much with us,” I identify with Bethia most strongly when she describes her strong ties to the land.