The Subtle Beauty of Caleb's Crossing
Before reading Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, Caleb's Crossing, I never considered myself to be a lover of books set in the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries. I gave up on these literary time periods early on in college, dismissing the novels that they spawned -- and the later novels that paid homage to them -- as ridiculous, un-captivating, and even (gasp!) boring. And this coming from a female English major -- a demographic notorious for adoring American and British period pieces!
Caleb’s Crossing has me wondering if I should revise my prejudiced opinion just a bit. Or maybe even a lot.
The title’s namesake, Caleb, is loosely based on the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. But Caleb’s story in Brooks’ novel -- his “crossing” from his Wampanoag culture to the world of early American colonialism and scholarship -- is, as Brooks acknowledges, purely fictional (though nonetheless well-informed by Brooks’ own historical research). And just as Brooks writes Caleb’s Crossing from her own historical distance, we see Caleb’s story from the distance of the novel’s narrator, Bethia.
Bethia is a minister’s daughter living on Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-sixteenth century. Befriending Caleb in her girlhood, friendship and hardship, childhood and adulthood. Throughout the narration of the story (Bethia's story and Caleb’s story) she grows from a curious 12-year-old girl to an intellectual-yet-burdened young woman to an elderly woman reflecting on her life -- a life lived in a time when women had very little choice and very little power.
What I enjoyed most about Caleb’s Crossing is the way that Brooks creates characters that have a real depth and subtlety. She humanizes her characters. Her protagonists (namely, Bethia and Caleb) are complex: admirable without being unrealistic, flawed without being hopeless. Her villains sometimes act despicably, but not all of them are unrelentingly evil. Even those characters who profess a hint (or more than a hint) of misogyny often display surprising hints of compassion and progressive thinking at times. This sort of subtlety is difficult to achieve in a story encompassing (spoiler alert!) racism, misogyny, rape, miscarriage, and mothers, fathers, and children dying.
In fact, it is this very subtlety -- the subtle beauty, even -- of Caleb’s Crossing that makes me want to go back to the dust-collectors on my bookshelf and give a few other period pieces a chance.