'Caleb's Crossing' is lyrical and deep

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 10, 2011

“Caleb’s Crossing,” by Geraldine Brooks. Viking. 2011. 306 pp. $26.95 hardback; e-book and audiobook available.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Among the writers who do historical fiction well, Geraldine Brooks produces luminous, vivid stories that readers find themselves happily lost in.
Her latest, “Caleb’s Crossing,” is based on the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, of the Wampanoag tribe on what is now known as Martha’s Vineyard.
Bethia Mayfield, the headstrong daughter of a farmer-preacher who ministers to the “salvages,” tells the story, and, truly, becomes the story.
There’s no historical base for the young Puritan, although there is for her father and many of the other characters mentioned in the book.
Brooks deepens the experience of the book by incorporating language of the time, as the characters sit “at board for bever.” Spiritous liquors are “hot waters” and Bethia works in the “buttery” at Harvard.
The author’s descriptions of the pristine island and the fetid town across the water show who’s “civilized” and who are truly “salvage.” Her sympathies clearly lie with those who live with the land — the ones being pushed out by the Puritan colony in the 1660s.
To read this book is to immerse yourself in that era, feeling ocean breezes in one part of the tale, smelling human waste and garbage in the developed “town” of Cambridge.
This is America at its first crossroads, with a chance to make peace with Native Americans or to destroy them.
We know only too well what happened.
But in this novel, there is some small measure of peace and hope, as the real Caleb and his friend, the real Joel Iacoomis, do make it to Harvard, show how bright and eager they are and finish four years of education.
But at what cost?
Bethia’s reflections describe the price as she sets down a final account of her sins and missteps.
But the book is beautiful throughout, told with lyricism and some naivete, reflecting the young narrator and her inexperienced friends.
Bethia’s father wants to bring Christ to the native peoples, and has some success, first converting Joel’s father.
But his victories are set off by his tragedies. He accidently runs over Bethia’s twin, Zuriel, with his hay wagon, severing his leg.
His wife, Bethia’s mother, dies shortly after giving birth to the babe Solace, a consolation child after losing another son only a few days after he was born.
Bethia, at 15, becomes the woman of the house, taking care of the baby and preparing all the food, stoking the fire and working on the farm.
Her surviving brother, Makepeace, is anything but a maker of peace. Lazy and self-important, he will one day sell his sister into servitude.
Then Solace, too, dies, drowned in a puddle on the farm.
After so much death, Bethia writes the sins she has committed on salvaged scraps of paper, telling what she feels brought about the death.
“I killed my mother. … And my sins were not mere nursery mischief but matters etched in stone upon the tablets of mortal error. I broke the Commandments, day following day. And I did it knowingly. … Like Eve, I thirsted after forbidden knowledge and I ate forbidden fruit.”
Bethia’s great sin is her thirst for knowledge, reflecting Caleb’s motivation to “cross over” to the English way of life, to the one English God and English standards of learning.
Bethia, as a good Puritan, is not to be educated, not to read or write (with few exceptions), not to seek knowledge beyond what she may need as a wife and mother.
She’s certainly not supposed to observe the pagan rituals of the heathen Indians; the wild incantations of their pawaaw (priest-healer) and never, never to taste of the white hellabore, which brings visions and near death.
Yet she does, meeting Caleb as a boy, following him, learning from his rituals and observing the people in his village.
She eavesdrops on her father’s instruction of her brother Makepeace — she steals his Latin book and hides it in the laundry so she can read it.
She strives to outshine Makepeace and foolishly shows off for her father, who indulges her a bit. She makes no friend of her older brother, who finds learning a chore and a burden.
With so little known about the real Caleb, Brooks tells his story obliquely, through Bethia’s encounters with him.
Thankfully, there is no flaming passion between the two. Brooks does not fall in the trap of a multi-ethnic romance. Nor does she apply modern sensibilities to the already ahead-of-her-time Bethia.
When her father dies, Makepeace and her grandfather set up an indenture so she can earn her brother’s tuition at Elijah Corlett’s school. It’s that or be married off to the kind but simple Noah Merry, and living out her life as a farmwife.
So much happens to Bethia, Caleb, Joel and Makepeace on the mainland, so many demands and, for Bethia, a chance to learn more by eavesdropping on lessons.
Makepeace is a failure at school and burns at the knowledge the “salvages” excel. Bethia’s indenture is dissolved when Makepeace returns to the island, but she stays in Cambridge to work at Harvard, seeing her Indian friends when she can, soaking up what lessons she overhears.
Although an English fund for the education of the natives pays their tuition, it does little to provide for their board, and they have no one to provide it for them, so both suffer from a poor diet.
Caleb sees the way the world is shifting. The “coatmen” will have the power, and the natives will lose the bloody battle. He sees himself changing to save his people.
But there are too many obstacles, too much unrest around them, and the dearest hopes of the brightest in the class are too soon snatched away.
Bethia is hit again by tragedies, as the perils of the times take their toll. She finally finds a man equal to her challenge, and the final part of the novel, reflecting on the years after Harvard, are her old-woman reflections.
“… I am not a hero. Life has not required it of me. But neither will I go to my grave a coward, silent about what I did, and what it cost. So, let these last pages by my death song — even if at the end, it is no paean, but as it must be: a dissonant and tragical lament.”