Thursday, June 30, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

     It was fun to pick this one up the day after visiting Martha's Vineyard and spending some time in Edgartown, called "Great Harbor" in the book.  Even though much of the island is inhabited, there are enough open spaces to get a feel of how it must have looked in the 1660's
     However, this book is mis-named.  Caleb is the first Wamponoag from the Island to attend Harvard but the voice of the novel is Bethia, the daughter of the local minister.  It is through her writings that Caleb's story, but more often her story, is told.  The "crossing" is his literal crossing the divide between the island and the mainland and, what is much more important, figuratively crossing over to a culture that was assumed by the English to be vastly superior to the Wampanoag culture, although there were many incidences that proved that he hadn't left behind his native beliefs entirely.
     Bethia first meets Caleb when she is twelve.  She manages to run into many times, always done without the knowledge of anyone else.  She teaches him English and he teaches her his language and culture.  They meet again when he comes to live with her family so her father could teach him along with her brother and another Wamponoag boy.  They eventually end up in Cambridge at a boarding school, preparing for eventual admission to Harvard.  Bethia goes too since, due to their reduced circumstances, she becomes an indentured servant at the school.
     I felt that the over-riding theme of the book is the comparison between the English culture and the Wamponoag culture, especially in regard to religious beliefs.  What the English accepted as true would seem strange to an outsider, just as the beliefs of the natives seemed strange to them.  After listening to Caleb explain their beliefs on many occasions, they started to make sense to Bethia.  She attempts to teach him Christianity only to be frustrated when he challenges her beliefs.  After listening to him describe some of his beliefs, she writes,  "Of course, I thought it all outlandish.  But as I rode home that afternoon, it came to me that our story of a burning bush and a parted sea might also seem fabulous, to one not raised up knowing it was true."  He eventually becomes a Christian, at least in appearance.  "Caleb had taken the teachings of his youth and simply recast them in terms of our teaching.
     The treatment of women in both cultures was a theme that I found very interesting. The prejudice against women at that time was just as strong as the prejudice against the natives, even stronger at times because Caleb and Joel, and even a native young woman, were able to get an education but it was denied to Bethia. She was fortunate to be able to work in an institution of learning so that she could eavesdrop on lectures and lessons.
     The assumption by the English that the Wamponoag were "salvages" seems ludicrous at times to Bethia when she realizes that her own culture, and their mode of living, is found wanting.  She worries when Caleb comes to live with her family that he would feel a "lack", that it would be inferior to the home of his childhood with its hard bed and burlap cover instead of soft furs.  Their homes were built in well-drained sheltered places, but the English had built their homes "in the path of maritime gales, and already constant use has fouled the springs...I feared that Caleb would feel himself in a reduced condition here."   Things are even worse when they go to Cambridge with its closely-built homes and pungent odors.  The school where they board is spartan and there is never enough food.  Yet Caleb flourishes in many ways, at least in the eyes of the English.  They feel that there is a "complete... crossing as Caleb has made into English ways, these many years."    Bethia considers him a hero.  "He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer's courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people.  He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs.  He won the respect of those who had been swiftest to dismiss him."  During the commencement exercises, Bethia finds herself wishing that Caleb had given one of the commencement orations.  She thinks that he would have given a "lively exegesis, drawing as it did on a very different experience of what was good and beautiful, and how beauty might be perceived quite differently by foreign souls in unalike times."
    In other words, the culture of the natives was not inferior to the English culture, just different.  It was the English, in their arrogance and their assumption of superiority, that sowed the seeds of discord that led to war.
   Although the historical basis for this book is slim, little is known about Caleb, I felt that the author did well to describe the cultural conditions of the time.  I enjoyed it immensely despite being misled by the title and recommend it as a worthwhile read.

Was it clean?  Yes, very clean!  There was very little to object to, just a few adult situations that might make it too adult for younger children, who probably wouldn't want to read it anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I've read all of G Brooks books and loved them. I won an ARC copy of this, but haven't started it yet...hope to make is a "summer read." Thanks for the review...
    By the way...would you be interested in swapping links on each other's sidebar? :)
    Melissa Mc
    Gerbera Daisy Diaries