Saturday, April 16, 2011

I haven’t lost my taste for fiction: reading Caleb’s Crossing

Despite being a voracious reader of novels in my early and middle years, I’ve been moving away from fiction and had started to worry that I was losing my taste for novels. But when I got the invitation to participate in BlogHer’s book club I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for free books. Geraldine Brooks has been on that long list of authors I thought I might get around to reading someday, but probably would not have done so if Caleb’s Crossing had not arrived in my mailbox.

Caleb’s Crossing is a historical novel about the emotionally charged friendship of a young English girl, Bethia Mayfield, and a young Native American, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, in 17th c. New England. Although the relationship between Bethia and Caleb is completely fictional, the character of Caleb is based on a Native American who graduated from Harvard in 1665. For me, the fact that there is an historical basis for the novel really added to the enjoyment. Brooks, through her extensive research into the history and culture of native Americans and English settlers, recreates the world of 17c Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge.

With Caleb’s Crossing, I’ve rediscovered the joy of getting lost in a novel and the pleasure of what only fiction can give-- a feel for what it’s like to live in a different culture, a different time. I don’t want to read novels about people like me—I want that sense of entry into another world.

I much preferred the early part of the novel with its poetic evocation of the beauty of an unspoiled Martha’s Vineyard and the very moving, slowly developing relationship between Bethia and Caleb. Their love for each other is so totally forbidden by their society that they cannot even acknowledge their feelings to themselves, but it is all so painfully obvious to the 21st century reader. In the second half of the novel evocative poetry takes a back seat to a powerful, page-turning narrative of the characters’ fate in 17th c. Cambridge.

I was surprised that, although retired, the old English and Women’s Studies teacher in me can’t help but think about how she might use this novel in the classroom. Old habits die hard. There’s the theme of exploring a different world and a different culture, as Bethia and Caleb try to understand each other’s worlds. A particularly moving example: Bethia is inconsolable after the accidental death of her young sister, Solace. Caleb is living with Bethia’s family at that time in order to receive instruction from Bethia’s father in preparation for his matriculation at Harvard. Caleb, too, is deeply distraught at the accidental death of Solace. The night before the burial Bethia sees him place some thing in Solace’s hand:

In the morning, I went privily to Caleb and asked what he had done, fearing that he had put into her hand what might be an un-Christian thing. He told me that it was a scrap of parchment on which he ahd made a fair copy of the scripture of our Lord, Suffer the little children...He ahd tied it up with his wampum beaded thong of deer hide, around the peg doll...that had been her chief plaything in her last month among the living.

“A medicine bundle such as pawaaws use," I said troubled.
“ No,” he replied calmly, “Not quite...Why send her into thee earth without some token of the love we all of us bear for her? Your father preaches that not all the old beliefs are evil. If, as he fashions it, Kiehtan our creator God is Jehovah by another name, then why shun the customs we have that come from him, to give the departing a small gift of comfort from this world as they pass into the next?”

Then the theme of race and gender oppression: Caleb’s Crossing is in a long tradition of feminist works--Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s Sister” is perhaps the most famous example-- which explore the longing of a highly intelligent young woman for access to the world of learning, a world denied to her by virtue of her sex. Also Bethia’s story is in a tradition of feminist writing in which awareness of gender oppression can lead to awareness of racial oppression--the Grimke sisters are perhaps the most famous example of this.

And finally, a theme that I would try (with probably only very limited success) to use as a motivational device: the incredible effort, the sacrifices Bethia and Caleb were both willing to make to have access to the wisdom contained within the covers of a book. Both Bethia and Caleb valued both sources of knowledge found in, and not found in, Harvard library. Both were looking for ways to reconcile two very different cultural/religious traditions. And both were acutely aware of how knowledge of other worlds created distance between them and their families—an experience familiar to many first generation college students. I would strongly recommend this to teachers of introductory college courses as well as to anyone looking for a beautifully written, totally absorbing historical novel.

Reading the other BlogHer book club reviewers was also interesting. One reviewer did not like what she saw as the author imposing 21st century progressive views on her 17th century characters. I didn’t see it that way at all. We know so little of 17th century women’s interior lives. To find Bethia’s voice Geraldine Brooks states in her afterward that she relied on the captivity narratives of Mary Rowlandson, the court testimony of Anne Hutchinson, the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Women like Randolph, Hutchinson, and Bradstreet had ideas that would resonate with many 21st century women. Throughout the (very scanty) historical record there have been women who have been way ahead of their time. Christine de Pizan writing in the 13th century, Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century sound at times very much like contemporary feminists. It is certainly possible and consistent with the historical record that the daughter of an educated man would long for an education and would at least implicitly question gender roles and racial hierarchy.

If any English teachers, History teachers, Women’s Studies teachers out there would like to have my copy of Caleb’s Crossing I’m happy to pass it along.


  1. Thanks for your review, Karen. The book is being purchased by the Free Library but I hope my hold is one of the early ones. Novel reading is one of the pleasures I assign to retirement, but in the long meanwhile it helps to have a trusted reader offer some guidance about what might be good to move up in the queue...and something new can pull me away from my current immersion in Silas Marner!

  2. Silas Marner! That’s one book I know I will never read!

    You can have my copy of Caleb’s Crossing. If you are out and about doing errands tomorrow, stop by and pick it up!

  3. Such blog entries are the ones I can read more often.

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