I should start by saying, I’ve never read Geraldine Brooks before. And never really had any intention of doing so. I always though her books appealed only to a particular kind of middle aged women, who like to think they’re reading intelligent literature, but not really. Yes, I know, I’m a horrible person. But the blurb of Caleb’s Crossing made it sound so interesting, I had to check it out.
In 1665, a young man from a tiny island off the coast of Boston went to Harvard College. This was significant, because Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck was the first Native American to do so. Educated by Christian missionaries, he has a firm friendship with the daughter of the head priest of the colony, and as he grows up, so too does his relationship with this rather remarkable young woman.
Caleb is a surprisingly tangential character to the whole thing, in the end. This is the story of Bethia, pure and simple. So if you’re expecting a story about the struggles of an outsider trying to fit into white society, you’ll be disappointed. What Brooks does, though, is highlight the horrible, horrible misogynism of the time, and what it meant to be an intelligent woman in a time when women were expected to cook, clean, pop some babies out, and not think.
I like that Brooks doesn’t take the easy path, either. Caleb and Bethia are childhood friends, teaching each other about their culture, language and such, and as time goes by, tough they remain in contact, they simply remain friends. There are, of course, questions about whether Bethia actually loves Caleb – and what that might mean – but it is no more than a fleeting mention, and I think the book is all the better for it. Rather than have (yet another) story about a woman who falls in love with an inappropriate man, Bethia does eventually marry, but it is to a man
Caleb’s story is just as interesting as Bethia’s, and I wish Brooks had made more out of it. To have discovered that a Native American went to Harvard in the 1600s just blows my mind, and I do think there’s a great tale to be told there. And though it is told here, as I said, it’s not the focus. We get whole swathes of his childhood, because he spends so much time with Bethia. But his adulthood is somewhat skipped over, because he’s not with Bethia any longer. I suppose that’s the problem with first person narration – you will never get the whole story. And as he grows up, Caleb becomes more and more of an English gentleman, so he never shows any emotion. Just as Bethis doesn’t know what’s going on in his mind, so too are we blocked out.
The title is interesting, too. There are sea crossings in this novel – Martha’s Vineyard is cut off from the rest of the American colony, an outpost where British civilisation is trying desperately to survive, and at the same time, spread the word of Christianity to the savages amongst whom they live. And these crossings are dangerous – at least two main characters die in these tiny ships that make the journey.
But the other crossing is one that all of us who did Year 12 between 2004 and 2008 will understand all too well. It’s a journey. Well, really, it’s just two character arcs. Caleb, in particular, crosses cultures to be able to gain the distinction of being the first Native American to go to Harvard, and it’s a tough transition. On the surface, Caleb appears to have undergone perfect integration into English society, but every now and then, we are allowed a peak behind the mask, and it is clear his transformation isn’t perfect. Whether this is because others won’t let him forget his background, or whether he just doesn’t like it, we may never know.
Bethia, too, undergoes a transformation. In many ways, while not succumbing to societal pressure, she does realise her own limitations. And I mean that in a good way – characters unaware of their own limitations annoy me. And so Bethia does marry the right man, and they do have a son, and it all works out. I don’t think this is a cop out – I suspect Brooks realised that, because this is a historical novel, she couldn’t have Bethia and Caleb get together, and run off into the distance together to have beautiful babies. I won’t tell you Caleb’s fate (though I will point out that I think it’s highly symbolic), but Bethia’s fate is nicely played.
I have to admit just how wrong I was about Geraldine Brooks. Caleb’s Crossing is the work of a novelist fully aware of what is going on, and making some very intelligent choices. It’s very well written, with just enough olde worlde language to make it seem that bit more authentic, without being grating. The characters are familiar without being boringly archetypical, and their arcs are well plotted.
If her other novels are anything like this one, then I should probably eat my pride, and go and read some.