Hoodwinked by Geraldine Brooks' Novel Caleb's Crossing
Unfulfilled, passionate desires and repression of every kind imaginable, this is the story of Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. Although possibly misnamed, Caleb’s Crossing is the masterfully written story of Bethia, daughter of a Puritan minister, coming of age on the recently settled island of Martha’s Vineyard in the sixteen hundreds. While Bethia’s relationship with her polar opposite, the wild-natured Native American, Caleb (the Hebrew name she gave him), is central to the story, the narrative is really about Bethia’s constant search for truth and her struggle to tame deeply conflicting desires about her faith and her role as a girl growing into a woman in a Puritan community.
Initially, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t super excited about previewing this book. Historical fiction generally isn’t my cup of tea. However, from the beginning, I was hooked. Brooks establishes an emotional connection between her characters and her readers almost immediately. When Bethia described her twin brother bleeding to death and her mother dying in childbirth when Bethia was young, it was heart-wrenching. I found myself drawing in a sharp breath upon reading what her father said when he found she had been listening in on her brother’s lessons. “Your path is not your brother’s. It cannot be. Women are not made like men… it is not seemly for a wife to know more than her husband.” When she was eleven and happened upon the island’s Indian women performing a ritual dance and was so moved to dance to the beat of their drums alone in the dark where no one could see her even though it was expressly forbidden by her religion, I found myself swaying in elation along with her.
Brooks’ knowledge of the island and its geography and history allows her to paint extremely vivid pictures that effortlessly turn into reels playing over and over in the mind during the reading experience. However, the reading experience in itself is a manifestation of repression and unfulfilled desires, just the same as the experience of the characters in the story. She so skillfully creates in the reader’s mind a forbidden and unexplored attachment between Bethia and Caleb, but even though some scenes seem so romantically and emotionally intense between the two, nothing ever comes of it. Bethia comes very close to hinting that she has some feelings for Caleb, but never quite even allows herself to fully have the thought. We never hear a word of it from Caleb, although he does seem to show up at the most opportune times to beg Bethia not leave, take a job, get married, etc. I found myself very frustrated as a reader when at the end of the story, Caleb, the title’s namesake and the male lead in the story, ends up being a like brother figure to our narrator.
Then it occurred to me. I’m having the same frustration about the relationship of these characters as the characters themselves had about their lives in the story. Brooks pulled one over on me. Hoodwinked, indeed. She gave me a literal, physical, emotional experience that paralleled that of her characters’.
Brooks set out to explore the crossings of cultures of both Caleb and Bethia- Caleb from a primitive tribal world into the proper English way of life, and Bethia from a repressed Puritanical world where she was to settle into a role already formed for her to a world where she could explore her faith and pursue education, making decisions about her life on her own terms. And Brooks succeeded admirably.
I enjoyed the well-researched portrayal of early American life, specifically as it regarded the Puritan religion and communities. Lines were strictly drawn and you were severely punished if you went outside them in any way. The highest calling for a man was to be a minister and the highest calling for a woman was to be stirring the kettle in silence in the home. The gender issues Brooks raises, especially in regard to education, in this book are extremely thought provoking and powerful.
The one drawback I found to the story is that Brooks writes it in the early American dialect which can sometimes be hard to decipher at first. As the reader goes along, it is fairly easy to incorporate these new terms into the vocabulary of the book, but it does take a couple of chapters to ease you into the diction. And don’t bother Googling. I tried. You won’t find much in the way of help. But persevere, you’ll understand as you go along.
This is a story about the white man and the Native Americans. It is a story about Puritan men and their women. It is a story that pits intrigue against discipline and nature against religion. And it is the story of a woman and her “tragical, lamentable” journey to find the truth about God, about life, and about love in a world filled with clearly defined black and white borders and boundaries. I’m not sure she ever found the truth of any of those things she so desperately searched for. In the end, Bethia leaves the impression there are still some gray areas in the truth she so diligently sought. But then again, I think that’s the point.