One thing that has changed for me since I began this project is that I am more aware of what is being published. I often go through book reviews or recommended lists and see what looks interesting, and then put in a request with my local library  for the book. That is how I discovered Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks– it was recommended by Amazon, and given the subject matter I was intrigued, so once I had the book I sat down to read and could not stop until I finished. It took me two days to complete, only because I forced myself to pause in order to absorb the themes of the story.

Caleb’s Crossing is a fictionalized account of a young Wampanoag Indian who was given the Christian name Caleb, and became the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Little is known of his actual history, but by using the historical circumstances of his time period, and rich research of Wampanoag and Puritan culture, Brooks manages to craft an enigmatic, yet powerful character in her narrative.

The story is actually told from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister who settled on the island that would become  known as Martha’s Vineyard in order to preach the gospel to the “savages” that inhabited it. Bethia is an entirely fictional character (as the author relates in her afterword), yet her circumstances were modeled on fact– Martha’s Vineyard was indeed  settled by missionaries intent on converting the local native peoples. Bethia is an unusual girl for her time in place (in this regard, she strikes me as a more modern construct, although the Puritans had plenty of “meddlesome women” in their midst– Anne Hutchinson, I am talking about you my friend.) Her father indulged her and she learned to read and write, and also obtained some knowledge of the classical languages, and also learned the local native tongues.  She runs a bit wild on the island and befriends a local Wampanoag boy, who she christians “Caleb.”   As children often do, they share their worlds with each other– she teaches him english and basic Calvinist theology and he teaches her the mysteries of the island– its animals, plants and natural rhythms. In some sense, they both undertake a “crossing” that will forever change their lives: Bethia never views her world through a purely Puritan lens again, and Caleb is forever changed by his encounters with the minister’s daughter.

The story  is told in a non-linear fashion through Bethia’s spiritual diary– a common practice in Puritan New England, and in the early years, she worries about God’s judgement on her for dabbling with “evil” (that is, native cultures and understandings.) Huge woes befall her family, indeed much of the book is a catalog of intense sadness, but again, this is true to the era– people died easily and often in early New England, and Brooks does a great job capturing how grief shaped the early settlers’ worldview.

Caleb eventually leaves his people and comes to be tutored by Bethia’s father to prepare for entrance to Harvard. His education continues in Cambridge at a preparatory school, and Bethia follows him as an indentured servant to pay for her brother’s (who is not too bright) preparation. The characters then progress onwards to Harvard, and their fates.

I will tell no more of the plot, but instead will address some of the themes of the book. The most obvious is “crossing” or cultural exchange. The Wampanoag, or “People of the First Light” lost much in this exchange, yet this story is not just a story of that grief, but it also shows that some Native people chose to engage European culture, in the hopes of understanding it or protecting their people. This is an age-old theme in Native studies– scholars know that Native peoples had autonomy and often used it in order to try to deal with the onslaught of a different peoples and cultures. Yet it would be imprudent to not think that European culture had been unchanged by its interactions with Native peoples, and Bethia’s character  shows this particular impact. Both she and Caleb were outsiders in their own societies (Caleb as an educated Native, Bethia as an educated woman who wished for more than to “be silent”) and for that reason they understood each other as almost no one else could.

Other themes also color the book: religion being one, and the power of an education being the other. But an education is often more than just books, as Bethia wisely notes in her narration. Caleb faces the prejudice of the other young men at Harvard because he is a “savage” and has to completely “cross-over” into a culture that is not his own, and that never will be his own, no matter how well he fits in. Bethia is defined by her longing for an education, a longing for knowledge, and a longing for her own rightful place in a world that is defined by men.

The book is beautifully written– evocative and Brooks’s language is striking and lyrical. You can smell the salty air of Martha’s Vineyard just as well as the putrid, close stench of Cambridge. Her characters are carefully crafted and they grow as the book unfolds. Some might say that the story does not focus on Caleb as much as Bethia, and some may ask why the story  of Caleb needs to be recounted through Bethia. I think that Brooks did this to reflect a particularity of the early American era: Native peoples were always seen through the prism of European culture; never through Native cultures themselves because Europeans had no capacity for understanding Native cultures through a wholly Native worldview.  So in many ways, Bethia  stands in as a more sympathetic early American narrator, but one heavily influenced by European, Calvinistic, culture.

In the American imagination, Harvard has a sort of mythological status as a great center of learning and innovation, even now.  The history that emanates from there is palpable: I remember standing in the Emerson chapel of the Divinity school as a master’s student, imagining Emerson giving his great “Divinity School Address” where he chastised the young ministers who sat before him. Staring out the window, I tried to imagined the fields and the verdant, transcendental vision that he outlined in the beginning of the sermon, but it is hard to do when the chapel now overlooks a nuclear cyclotron and is so near the hum of the science buildings (that will break the spell for you.) All the same, it is still the same chapel that Emerson preached in, tiny, wood-paneled and dark, and you can feel the history there. The book transported me to Harvard and Cambridge’s early days, and in some ways, it felt oddly familiar in only the way a place can when you imagine it centuries before you stepped foot there.

Brooks’s book is a wonderful glimpse into the cultural battles that faced the early settlers and into the world of the “crossings” that those who stand with a foot in two different cultures face. It is beautifully written and evocative, and will leave you thinking about its characters for a long time afterwards. I highly recommend it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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