Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Caleb's Crossing

Last night my book group at the library discussed this latest novel by Geraldine Brooks. I think we have read all of her other novels, March, Year of Wonders, and People of the Book, so we were looking forward to her new novel. I had a hard time getting into it at first, as it is written in the language of the 1600s, and it is difficult to follow. But I found myself being pulled into the story and ended up liking the book very much. It is really fascinating how Brooks can start with a few facts and then create a whole story (fictionalized) from those facts--in this case, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. In writing the book, she talked with tribal members on Martha's Vineyard, read translations of early documents in the Wopanaak language, and did extensive research in Harvard's archives about the education of Native Americans.

The story begins in 1660 on the island of Martha's Vineyard (Brooks lives on Martha's Vineyard), and is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the young daughter of an island minister. Bethia befriends Caleb, a young Wamanoag boy and they become lifelong friends, teach each other their language, and banter back and forth about their culture and their religions,  all this set against the conflicts at that time between the English colonists and the Native Americans.  I loved this passage where Bethia is telling Caleb the story of Adam and Eve, and Caleb responds:

"Your story is foolishness. Why should a father make a garden for his children and then forbid them its fruit? Our god of the southwest, Kiehtan, made the beans and corn, but he rejoiced for us to have them. And in any wise, even if this man Adam and his squa displeased your God, why should he be angry with me for it, who knew not of it until today?"

Bethia's love of learning and her relationship with Caleb form the basis for the story. Eventually they both end up in Cambridge, where Caleb is studying at Harvard (part of an experiment by the English to educate the "salvages") and Bethia is sent there as an indentured servant at the school. As a girl, Bethia cannot be educated, but she is smarter than most and manages to educate herself at Harvard, listening in on lectures and learning Latin and Greek.

Our group was split on the book--about half didn't like it. Some people wanted more story about Caleb and less about Bethia. Most of us liked Bethia and admired her strength and her will to learn. It's funny because several of us said it reminded us of Ahab's Wife, a book set in the late 1800s that we read last year and all ended up loving. We all agreed that Caleb must have been a remarkable man for his time, to have sacrificed so much of his Indian life to make the "crossing" into the English world.  In the end,  Bethia says, "Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer's courage." We also appreciated the book's Afterword, when Brooks says that Bethia would have liked the fact that today Harvard has a woman president, and that the first Wopanaak from Martha's Vineyard since Caleb in 1665 received her undergraduate degree from Harvard in 2011.

It's not my favorite book of Geraldine Brooks, but I liked it and I'm glad I read it.

1 comment:

  1. You beat me the post, Patsi. Interesting comments from your group. I am surprised so many didn't like it. It seems as though it would definitely appeal to women, with the character of Bethia.