Fiction and History Combine in Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

Bethia comes from a world of puritanical morals, strict religious values, and stringent feminine roles. Her ways are set; her future is clear, in her own eyes, as well as her parents. Then a newfound friend stands, quite literally and figuratively, bare right in front of her.

Caleb, a native boy on what would become Martha's Vineyard, teaches Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of an evangelical minister striving to save the souls of the island's "salvages," about hunting and fishing and berry-gathering. He staunchly refuses her God and her seemingly "white man" views on the world, but still takes her on as his companion. And Bethia, torn though she is by what she sees as amoral and even satanic, finds meaning in a culture she wasn't born into. In the end, she finds resonance with the salvages.

Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks, takes us through the tale of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. While Caleb is a real-life, historical figure, this piece of fiction attempts to tell his background story -- and the story of many Native American peoples within the British colonies -- through the eyes of Bethia, a smart, savvy English girl, who thanks to the constraints placed upon women at the time is forced to live out her educational aspirations through the men in her life -- her father, then her brother, and then finally, Caleb.

While this clash of two worlds is often referred to in American literature, what makes this particular story so interesting is the clash of not just historical icons but gender roles. Bethia is a perfect portal to show us how Puritan women at the time were handled.

Brooks draws great parallels between the role of females in early British colonial society to the role of Native Americans, who just like women, were initially deemed unfit and "not of the proper mind" to learn.

Brooks also avoids the obvious traps a story of childhood friendship grown into adulthood entails. Caleb and Bethia are not romantically involved. Brooks doesn't allow room for a Disney-esque fairy-tale to take place. Instead, she makes harder choices for her characters, similar to the much-beloved girls in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. In the end, Bethia marries a different man than Caleb, just as Jo March ends up choosing another over her childhood boy friend, Laurie.

Still, in what would today be referred to as "working the system," Bethia and Caleb manage to navigate a world set up by white, Protestant men. Their friendship moves them off the island and into the town of Cambridge, where Harvard resides, and Bethia -- who sacrifices initially for the sake of her slow-to-learn brother, and in the end, for Caleb -- holds the hand of a few Native American students trying to learn an educational theorem filled with Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English.

The book, though slow to start thanks to Bethia's colonial manner of speech, is captivating.

The historical timeline really grips the reader. True tidbits thrown in by Brooks about how the English attempted to convert the natives and through the mention of real historical characters like Anne Bradstreet grab the reader and keep them intrigued.

After all, we want Caleb and therefore, Bethia to succeed. It then makes it all the more heart-breaking that almost none of the story is true. Bethia, as far Brooks knows, is a completely fictional character. And while the book is truly the story of Caleb's triumph, we grow more attached to Bethia by the end of the book, as she narrates us through the entire read. That, coupled with the fact that Bethia almost settles in the end - she never receives any formal education and never seems to resolve the pent-up anger she has at being hindered her whole life in higher-learning - makes this book a bit anti-climactic.

Still, it is an interesting glimpse into the lives lived by the natives and the British before things came to blows in the latter part of the century, and the two peoples clashed violently.

In the end, the beauty of the book is that the reader gets to see how both cultures strove to meet somewhere in the middle, even amidst segregation and deep-seeded racism.The glimmer of hope and perseverance offered up by Brooks' characters alone makes Caleb's Crossing a worthy read.

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