Monday, September 10, 2012

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

One of my favorite books of the last few years is Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for March, as well as critical acclaim for The Year of Wonders. Brooks has set all of these novels in remote time periods, and they all share one important similarity. Each time, Brooks captures the voice of the characters in their time and place. Her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing follows this pattern with superb results.

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.

--Chiron, 9/1/12

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