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Book Review: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks
Bethia Mayfield was but fifteen years old when she first set ink to scraps of stolen paper to record her life's story. But it was not a simple teenager's diary she kept, nor a factual account of a life yet part-lived, but an enumeration of her sins, her faults and missteps, the temptations faced and succumbed to that brought her to the curious converging of worlds she felt the night she began to write. The year was 1660, the location, the settlement of Great Harbor on the island now known as Martha's Vineyard, and Bethia, the minister's daughter and, in her own words, a sinner:
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"I broke the Commandments, day following day. And I did it knowingly. Minister's daughter: how could I say otherwise? Live Eve, I thirsted after forbidden knowledge and I ate forbidden fruit. For her, the apple, for me, the white hellebore -- different plants, proffered from the same hand. And just as that serpent must have been lovely -- I see him, his lustrous, shimmering scales, pouring liquid over Eve's shoulders, his jewel eyes luminous as they gazed into her own -- so too did Satan come to me in a form of irresistible beauty." (Brooks, 5-6)
Bethia is the heroine of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, Caleb's Crossing. A brilliant work of historical fiction, Brooks takes her reader inside the world of the earliest English settlement on Martha's Vineyard and weaves a masterfully-shaped tale of what life might have been like for the intellectually gifted daughter of the island's minister, a missionary to the colonies sent to save the souls of the Wampanoag Indians. Bethia's name means "servant," and she wrestles with the conflicting desires to live up to her name in service to the Lord, and to satisfy her thirst for learning by honing her intellectual capacities. Bethia struggles to decide whether her love of learning is a gift from God or temptation sent by Satan to lure her down sinister paths; her quest to understand the source of her intelligence is a defining feature of the book's plot.
Though Bethia begins recording her story when she is fifteen, she quickly rewinds the clock three years to what she identifies as the beginning of her slide into sinfulness. It is when she is twelve that Bethia, having struck off from the settlement to spend the day gathering clams for her family on the shore, meets and befriends a young Indian boy who she would come to call Caleb. It is their friendship that sets Bethia on a spiritual journey, one that would last her lifetime, in which she would struggle to make sense of the religious teachings of her family in light of what she learns from Caleb and the Wampanoag people.
The character of Caleb is based on a real historical figure, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, an American Indian from the island then called Noepe who attended Harvard College, beginning in 1661, until his graduation in 1665. The collision of two cultures - of the English Puritans that settled in the colonies and of the American Indians that already called that land home - that would have occurred in the life of the real Caleb becomes the backdrop of Brooks' novel.
There is a way in which Bethia Mayfield's story rings familiar - the theme of "bright and curious young girl in long-ago, pre-feminist time and place wants more out of life yet faces constraint from repressively patriarchal family and/or culture" is one most readers have seen hashed out time and again. Yet Brooks' Bethia is anything but a rehashed character, and her story is far from being simply another variation on a popular theme. In fact, what I find most compelling about the character of Bethia Mayfield is precisely how complex she is. Bethia doesn't just age, she evolves; she doesn't simply come of age, but becomes herself, over and over as the story unfolds.
At its core, Caleb's Crossing is a story about the dynamic nature of faith. Faith, as Brooks constructs it, is not something a person either has or doesn't have, something one either gains or loses, but rather is something one constantly negotiates. Throughout the novel Bethia is placed in situations in which she is forced to grapple with disjunctures between the clearly and sternly delineated teachings of her religious upbringing and the messy, confusing reality of real life. Though Bethia's language and way of life may feel strange and distant to modern readers, Bethia's quest to define and refine her faith is one to which I believe many readers will easily relate.
I was drawn to this book initially because the places it takes place - Martha's Vineyard, Cambridge, Massachusetts, the grounds of Harvard University - are some of the places most dear to me. What I found in Caleb's Crossing was not just a familiarity of place, though, but a familiar character - one to whom I could relate and in whose story I found so many resonant themes. Geraldine Brooks has a true talent for shaping characters - Bethia Mayfield is one of those rare characters who I feel I will truly miss at books end, and who I will likely revisit many times in the future.