The Caleb of the title of Geraldine Brook’s latest novel is the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, a feat he accomplished in 1665. In a mind-boggling transformation he left behind life among his people, adopted the English style of clothes and cut hair, language, foods and manners, abandoned the training he was undergoing to become a spiritual and political leader of his tribe, and instead studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew amidst the earliest Colonial scholars. To be inside that mind as he “crosses” from one culture to another seems too great a leap, and indeed Brooks cleverly narrates the novel through another’s eyes—a young Colonial woman, Bethia Mayfield. In the creation of this narrative voice, Brooks has outdone herself, and given the brilliance of the narrative voices of March (which won a Pulitzer) and Year of Wonders, that is saying a great deal.
So, while the title and the blurbs suggest that Caleb is the focus of the novel—and he certainly plays a pivotal role—I find the book to be about Bethia, and that doesn’t bother me at all. Brooks has an extraordinary facility for creating language that sounds and feels like the way people spoke and thought in that distant period. I know she is a careful researcher, so perhaps she picks up the rhythms and vocabulary from the works of that period she has read, but it is certainly more than that—an innate talent for language. Too often writers sound hokey and ridiculous when they attempt to create an older sounding language and ideas, but Brooks submerged me so seamlessly and believably that when her young narrator blames herself for accidents and tragedies that we moderns (or most of us anyway) would never chalk up to punishment for our sins against God, I could not abandon poor Bethia to the foolishness of her Calvinistic beliefs. Instead I stayed within her framework, vivid and painful as that is at times and lived her life with her. I’ve taught Colonial American literature and history at various times in my career, but I found a new depth of understanding in Caleb’s Crossing.
Along with the difficulties and pain in the story, Caleb’s Crossing is full of the beauty of Martha’s Vineyard. This portrayal of setting is as masterly and loving as her development of Bethia. It is almost as though the natural beauty of Martha’s Vineyard becomes a character in the novel, and the vile stench and unhealthy damp of Cambridge a contrasting villain. Given the harm life in Cambridge does some of the characters, place as villain does not seem an exaggeration.
Some people have objected to the sweeping conclusion of Year of Wonders in which Brooks lifted her character Anna into a new place and life that seemed to solve all her problems while ignoring a range of issues. In Caleb’s Crossing there is no deus ex machina setting switch, but Brooks does wrap up Bethia’s life in quick fashion. This provides satisfaction with no loose threads at the end, but it does change the pace and rhythm of the book. I think it provided a good closing to the novel. I’ll be interested to see if other reviewers agree.
For Brook’s ability to allow us to live within a young Puritan woman’s mind and peer into the complex issues arising from the clash of Native American and Colonial world views, Caleb’s Crossing is definitely worth reading. Once again, a masterful work of historical fiction by one of America’s best contemporary writers.
The Poisoned Pen has a few signed first edition copies of Caleb's Crossing left, if you are interested email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more reviews by Judith visit her site www.judithstarkston.com