A Long Lost World Brought to Life

BlogHer Review

I need, I suppose, to account for my life and for my part in Caleb’s crossing from his world to mine, and what flowed on from it. Time is short, but I pray that he in whose hand my life rests will grant me days enough to make this accounting. — from Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

When I first opened Caleb's Crossing by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks I thought it would be another politically correct saga about repressed Christians persecuting noble "savages." However, my preconceptions were shattered almost immediately as I became gently entangled in Brooks’ complex tale of the early Puritan settlers in Massachusetts and their dealings with the native inhabitants. Told from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, a minister’s daughter, a long lost world is brought to life, bursting with both the glory and cruelty of the untamed new land. Each character is multi-faceted, with psyches that have many layers amid the Calvinist regularity of their lives. Quaint Old English mannerisms and turns of phrase as well as Wôpanâak words are worked effortlessly into the narrative so that as I read the characters stood before me in all their humanity. Most of all, Caleb’s Crossing depicts the odyssey of a woman’s soul as reflected in her friendship with a young Native American man who is preparing to overcome all odds and graduate from Harvard College.

Caleb’s Crossing is based upon the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck of the Wôpanâak tribe of Neope, now Martha’a Vineyard, who did indeed become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Bethia is portrayed as the catalyst who draws him into the colonists’ world from where there is no turning back. Caleb sees adopting the white man’s ways and culture as being the only way he can help his people. His determination to persevere is matched only by his genuine concern for Bethia and her family, who have come to replace his own.

In the meantime, young Bethia struggles with an intense fascination for Caleb and his fading aboriginal ways, which to her are part of the splendor of her island. She fears that she is being drawn into pagan darkness; fear increases her obsession, leading her into actions of which she is afterwards ashamed. Her shame is compounded by guilt when her family is afflicted by a series of tragedies; Bethia believes she is being punished for her sins and so seeks a bitter atonement.

Part of Bethia’s problem is her deep inner conflict, caused by the fact that, in spite of her hungry and agile mind and gift for languages, her father stops her formal education when she is nine. He fears that she will outstrip her brothers, especially the eldest one who is meant to be a minister. Bethia studies on her own, and has to hide the fact that she is fluent in Latin and Hebrew, thus falling into a pattern of deception that adds to her guilty feelings. In the course of the story Bethia finds ways to use her gifts through the very womanhood which she once saw as a barrier.

One aspect of the book which captivated me was the descriptions of Harvard in the seventeenth century. Combining high scholarship with a Spartan lifestyle, the original Harvard was more like a Protestant monastery than what we would now think of as a college or university. It is impressive to me how a liberal arts education was so valued by the early colonists, who feared ignorance more than any material hardship.

While the rigors of the Puritan theocracy are as scary to me as some of the more unattractive habits of the Native Americans, with public floggings and public humiliations for anyone who broke the moral code, I understand that they were struggling to maintain law and order in an otherwise lawless land. It is interesting how many of the Puritans did reach out to the Native Americans, seeing them not just as “salvages” but as souls made in the image of God. The use of Scripture in the book is quite edifying, emphasizing the point that while in some ways both the natives and the Puritans are living in an Old Testament world, the merciful actions of many of the characters are directly from the Gospels.

I would recommend Caleb’s Crossing to anyone interested in the founding of America, especially those who want only the most authentic historical fiction, filled with intriguing information amid a vibrant human drama. Readers who are tired of explicit nonsense passing for romance will be enchanted by the subtle sensuality of the prose, as well as the deep and abiding loves which flourish in spite of the bleakness of existence in the colony. It is a pleasure to meet a woman such as Bethia who, though from a faraway epoch, deals with the joys and tribulations of existence with the same range of emotions as we ourselves.

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