Once again, the author takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha's Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, she has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure. The narrator of the story is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island's glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe's shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb's crossing of cultures. Like the author's beloved narrator Anna, in Year of Wonders, Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha's Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart.
Thus begins Geraldine Brook's newest novel, and therein lies a hint to my problem with the book: a female narrator from an earlier historic period that has implausible and impossible knowledge and modern insight. This same problem plagued her earlier novel, Year of Wonders.
Caleb's Crossing is based on a scrap of historic evidence: a letter written in Latin by Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. This basis for an historic novel is thin, but interesting. How would a young man of the Wampanoag Tribe from Martha's Vineyard end up at Harvard? What would his experience there be like? How would he navigate the enormous social, cultural, and religious differences between his past and present?
Unfortunately, the author chooses to tell this story from the perspective of a young Puritan girl, Bethia. She becomes the vehicle through which the reader tries to hear Caleb's voice. In order to facilitate knowledge of Caleb's life with his tribe, the author has to engineer unlikely free time for a strictly raised Puritan girl to wander the woods, form a relationship with Caleb, and spy on Native ceremonies. Then when Caleb leaves the Island for Cambridge, the author again has to devise an unlikely situation in order for the narrator to stay with the subject. It is awkward and unbelievable. Equally so is Bethia's prodigious ability to learn languages and memorize lessons while eavesdropping from the scullery and her ability to keep a lifelong secret diary written in a most modern voice.
So although Geraldine Brooks has a good ear for story and an interest in historical research, I am becoming less and less impressed with her ability to convey a compelling narrative. Is People of the Book to remain her most accomplished work?
Brooks' last novel, "The People of the Book," was stunning and rich; perhaps this story, which revolves around a less complex plot, is destined to pale in comparison. It is a shame, as Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, as a historical persona, must certainly have had a very interesting life for his times.
Brooks has taken the approach common to many historical novels in depicting her protagonist as a woman of potential with modern ideas who is kept down by misogyny. Bethia has a much greater facility for Latin that her brothers, learning simply by listening in to their lessons; but when she speaks a Latin passage before a visitor, her father becomes irate, reminding her that it's not the place of a woman. (Her mother is only a little better: she also reminds Bethia that her end in life will be marriage and service to her family, but she hints that there's no harm in learning, as long as Bethia keeps it to herself.) As Bethia grows to adulthood, she faces more trials due to her sex: indentured servitude, enforced silence, and managing several suitors, both wanted and unwanted. The novel is, in fact, more a series of Bethia's pre-femininist struggles than the story of Caleb's short but remarkable life.
Which isn't to say that it wasn't fairly enjoyable. Just be forewarned if you find this approach a bit tedious or unbelievable.
The story jumps around a bit in time as, near the end, we learn that a terminally ill Bethia has been jotting down her memories of Caleb.
One other caveat: if you are thinking of listening to this one on audio, DON'T! I almost gave up on it because of the irritating narration by Jennifer Ehle, THE Elizabeth Bennett of the Colin Firth version of [Pride and Prejudice]. How bad can she possibly be? REALLY bad. She reads very, very slowly, focusing so hard on enunciating every word, syllable, and letter clearly that you feel like you're being read to by a bad kindergarten teacher. She goes so far as to pronounce every "a" like the long "a" in "hay," e.g., "I put A shawl and A loaf of bread into A basket and went out the door without saying A word to anyone." It really grates on the nerves!
Brooks opted to tell the story through the eyes of young Bethia, the granddaughter of the founders of Martha's Vineyard and a devout Calvinist. Bethia, which means "servant," was true to her name - she served her family, her faith and later her family's legacy by taking care of Caleb and fellow Native American student Joel. When only 12, Bethia met Caleb in the forest, and they forged a friendship that lasted throughout Caleb's life. She taught him English and Christianity; Caleb taught her about tolerance and his own faith. It was these early exchanges that set the foundation for Caleb's academic success later in his life.
Bethia's character is not based on a historical figure, but Brooks, through her detailed research, illustrated what life would be like for a young woman in 1600's Massachusetts. Bethia was smart, but her religion permitted her from being formally educated. As a woman, she was concerned a commodity, used by her family to help get her less-than-brilliant brother into an academy. It was hard to read Bethia's suppression as both a woman and scholar, but Brooks could do no else with her. It was an unfortunate sign of the times.
I love Brooks' writing style and eye for historical detail - both of which are evident in Caleb's Crossing. Admittedly, though, I was not as enraptured by this story as I was with Brooks' earlier books. The plot didn't move quickly enough, and I wanted to know more about Caleb and less about Bethia. I skimmed through some pages in search of some kind of "action" to propel the plot. I found it in bits and pieces, but overall, Caleb's Crossing was a slow-moving story.
If you haven't read Geraldine Brooks, start with her other books and delight in her writing. Save Caleb's Crossing for a lazy day by the fire.
I have read other novels by Geraldine Brooks, but never have I been so enthralled with them as I was with Caleb's Crossing. Bethia, our narrator, is a young woman with a keen mind and thirst for knowledge but also devout and not unbelievably modern in her thinking. Caleb was based on a real person, one of the first Wampanoag men to matriculate at Harvard. As in the best historical fiction, time and place - in both Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge - are evocative and realistic with historical details naturally adding to the narrative, showing Brooks' research with a light touch. I now want to follow up with some of the sources mentioned in the afterword to learn more about the time period. In addition to this, Brooks delicately touches on the themes of religion and prejudice without sounding preachy or anachronistic. Truly superb historical fiction.
With this novel, Brooks reinforces that she is one of the strongest writers of literay historical fiction out there today. Caleb's Crossing is a compelling story, full of rich characters and historical detail. The novel is a page turner, and each change in the character's circumstances pulled me a little bit deeper into this emotional novel. Although some of the characters in this novel are real, Brooks' fictional characters truly give life to this imagining of the early Puritain colony and how the English interacted with the native peoples. Brooks is very true to the period, and this historical detail, along with her gifts as a storyteller are what really makes this novel strong.
Although Caleb gets the title, it is really the story of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a minister who hopes to convert the native population to Christianity. She forms a clandestine friendship with Caleb and eventually follows him to school, soaking up as much learning as she can while toiling as an indentured servant to the schoolmaster.
Some members of my book club derided the strong heroine of Year of Wonders as "Superwoman," and there's a touch of that in the portrayal of Bethia, too, but the story is so good one forgives the elements that are farfetched.
Brooks keeps things moving while avoiding predictable melodramatic plot turns. She offers a fair share of calamity without making the whole work depressing. She offers few villains, instead prodding us to understand the characters we are tempted to dislike.
Given all the questions that arise from a native American assimilating into Western culture and in particular into the dour Puritanism of New England, some readers may regret not getting the story from Caleb's point of view. In a poignant scene near the end of the book, we are invited to consider how little we have learned of him and how cavalierly we applauded his abandonment of his people.
Geraldine Brooks loosely based Caleb’s Crossing on the true story of Caleb, a Native American living near some less than strict Puritans, in 1660, on what is now known as Martha’s Vineyard. He befriends the 15-year-old Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a strict Calvinist minister trying to convert Caleb’s tribe. The two form a bond which lasts for many, many years.
Bethia’s father agrees to tutor Caleb, and another young Indian, Joel, in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in order for them to qualify for a scholarship dedicated to Native Americans to the recently founded Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before the arrival of Caleb, he tutored Makepeace and Bethia, but his son proved a poor student, and he despaired and stopped the lessons for both his children. He tried again with the two Indians in the hopes that Caleb would inspire his son.
He succeeded with Caleb and Joel, both of whom received the scholarships; however, Makepeace faltered. His father could not afford the cost of sending Makepeace to a preparatory school – along with Caleb and Joel – but he solved this difficulty by sending Bethia as an indentured servant to the headmaster of the school. Bethia narrates the story and reveals many of the secret meetings she has with Caleb. Her struggles with religion and her blooming womanhood are the keystones to the story.
As always, Brooks’ plots have a certain something, which creates vivid images in the mind of the reader. Her attention to detail raises the story to a level of realism I find most admirable. The icing on this marvelous dessert, however, consists of the voice of the narrator. I have spent a fair amount of time studying the 17th century, and have read a few books set in that period, not the least of which is Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost. Brooks deserves a place of honor right next to that spectacular novel.
Bethia struggles with her religious views after spending some time with Caleb. He explains to her his pantheon of deities after Bethia tells him of the “one, true God of the Christians.” Brooks writes,
“But then, I remembered the singing under the cliffs. An inner voice, barely audible: the merest hiss. Satan’s voice, I am sure of it now, whispering to me that I already knew Keeskand, that I had already worshipped him many times as I bathed in the radiance of a sunrise, or paused to witness the glory of his sunset. And did not Nanpawshat have power over me, governing the swelling, salty tides of my own body, which, no so very long since, had begun to ebb and flow with the moon. It was good, the voice whispered. It was right and well to know these powers, to live in a world aswirl with spirits, everywhere ablaze with divinity” (36).
Numerous words in the Wampanoag tongue add additional spice to the story. Bethia explains some of the words, some are clear from context, while translation of others are easily found with a smart phone.
Bethia seems a bit too mature for a girl of 15, and sometimes I found this a bit annoying. Nevertheless, In Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks has another wonderful historical novel to her credit. I can’t wait for the next. 4-1/2 Stars.
Ros thought this would be a good story. She enjoyed it more than “People of the Book”. The last section left her dissatisfied, Would a girl then, really have been able to manipulate things to such an extent?
Others: Her father encouraged her, I found it believable..
She did know the limitations of her role.
It was a novel so she could stretch it a bit.
Caleb was fringe figure which was a pity.
Facts got in the way of a good story.
A phonetic glossary would have been good.
She managed the 16th. century language well and made it easy to read.
A good discussion which went on late into the night!
The Caleb of the title refers to Cheeshahteaumauck, the first Native American to earn a degree at Harvard. The title refers to Caleb's crossing from native tribal culture to English white culture, but the book is really more about Bethia's crossing from girlhood to womanhood. As a young girl, Bethia secretly befriends Caleb, a Wampanoag Indian and nephew of the most powerful pawaaw of the tribe. Because of a series of events, she ends up "accompanying" her brother and Caleb to Harvard.
Puritan women were not educated, but Bethia yearns for an education. Unbeknownst to her father, a minister, she listens to him teaching her brother and Caleb and thereby learns Latin, Greek and Hebrew. She furthers her informal education at Harvard by eavesdropping on lectures. Is it credible that a person learn three classic languages merely by listening?
Another weakness is the last section of the novel. It lacks the details that make the first sections so interesting. In the same way, Bethia's relationship with her husband Samuel lacks detail; we are told about the love, but not really shown it, so it is somewhat unconvincing. The relationship between Bethia and Caleb seems much stronger because it is delineated so much more clearly.
The book touches on a number of topics: the conflict between native and white culture and religion, the mistreatment of natives, Puritan religious views, the effects of a totally patriarchal society.
Having enjoyed Brooks' other novels, I eagerly began this one. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
What sets Brooks apart from the many talented writers of fiction, especially historical fiction, is her dazzling writing. I have never visited Martha's Vineyard, but I truly feel as though I have been there. Brooks' ability to write in Bethia Mayfield's voice is uncanny. Her use of archaic language and syntax pulls the reader in; Bethia's storytelling feels authentic but doesn't slow the narrative. I found myself reading the book slowly, doling out the chapters. It's relatively short and I didn't want it to end. Toward the end of the book, a large span of time is skipped over and I confess that I wished Brooks had told the entire story, but that would not have been Caleb's story. Yes, in some ways this is more Bethia's story than Caleb's, but their stories are interwoven and I suspect that the tragedy of Caleb's life is more powerful because we learn of it from someone who loved him. "Caleb's Crossing" is one of those books that reminds the reader how much our lives in the U.S. have changed in a relatively short period of time. I was saddened to think, however, that girls in many parts of the world still live in societies where girls and women may not be educated, where they are literal prisoners in their own homes. I wondered what Bethia Mayfield could have achieved if she too had received a Harvard education.
Ms. Brooks supplies a variety of topics to ponder with this story. There are gender and race issues as well as those concerning religion - the Native "heathen" spirituality versus Puritanical faith. These religious disputes lead to the contention between self-preservation versus cultural preservation. Is it right or wrong for Natives to abandon their heritage and assimilate into the English culture? Lots of good topics to roll around in the ol' noggin, no? Overall, I heartily recommend this book - especially to those with a penchant for historical fiction!
I wouldn't want this to be the first Geraldine Brooks novel you read: too subtle for the unprepared reader. People of the Book or March would be excellent introductions to her style and mastery.