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Caleb’s Crossing is by a writer whose output to date has been small, but bears the mark of quality. Those who enjoy her work might notice a comparison between her and Marilynne Robinson, who also tends to favour ecumenical and religious themes, for example, in Home.
In Caleb’s Crossing, Brooks goes back to colonial America and the 1660s. The period is not particularly familiar to many Americans and still less so to European readers, although both might be amused by the location, as much of the narrative is set on what is now Martha’s Vineyard, but was then called the Island. In the 1660s, it was the antithesis of the luxurious playground it is now. It was part of the Massachusetts Bay colony, a beautiful but harsh environment, governed by two dominant forces; the climate and the severe puritanism of its English settlers. The narrative is from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, the young daughter of the local minister and through her, we see how the settlers are affected by and impact on the local native American community, the Wampanoag. Bethia isn’t simply a passive observer, she and her Wampanoag friend, Caleb, are the agent of change, starting with each other. Almost the first thing they do when they meet is to rename each other. Caleb’s birth name, Cheeshahteauamauck, dismays Bethia, with its length, unpronouncability and its meaning, ‘hateful one.’ He in his turn, is pained by the meaning of hers, ‘servant’ and renames her Storm-Eyes. Both have much to learn about meaning and its mutability and it is a critical part of their growing up. On the one hand, renaming each other could be deemed both colonialist – Bethia, who is part of the dominant white culture, determines her friend’s name for him, and patriarchal in the Old Testament sense. Caleb takes on the right of a man to name everything around him, including a woman. The biblical subtext is striking, given the time they are in, their innocence and the Eden-like setting.
Having taken a step into each other’s worlds, we see how much at odds these young people are with the dominant cultures around them. Bethia is a devout Christian girl from a prominent settler family, with a loving father and a religious creed that insists on literacy for boys and girls. However, having schooled Bethia in reading, writing and maths, the same culture insists she is a mere helpmeet to men, the superior sex. Given the time she lives in, none of this is surprising, but the insult is compounded by the presence of Makepeace, Bethia’s dull-witted brother, who is tormented daily by Greek, Latin, Hebrew, the expectations of his scholarly father and the obvious cleverness of his younger sister. She shows an aptitude for both book learning and the things that are held to belong to the female sphere, while he struggles to find a place in either academic learning or applied skills such as farming.
Bethia’s flair in many different areas doesn’t give her an easy life. The ideology of her community deplores illiterate women but doesn’t trust or approve of those who seek abstract knowledge. However, women are expected to acquire practical skills; herbology, housekeeping, beekeeping, book-keeping, and child-care and nursing all come under Bethia’s purview and she does them well. While still in her mid-teens, she assists a younger girl in childbirth. In fact, modern readers might find Bethia’s apparent aptitude in everything she turns her hand to unlikely and even slightly aggravating. Devout Christian maid she may be, but she’s no-one’s servant; perhaps Caleb has a point when he calls her Storm-Eyes.
Bethia is not the only one smarting under the restrictions of her circumstances. Her brother has already been mentioned, but a more striking comparison is with Caleb and his friend, Joel Iacoomis, the son of a convert. Joel’s father is keen for him to be involved in missionary work among his own people and this meets with resistance among some of the more conservative elements in the settler community. Both of these young men are formidably bright and Joel has the warmth and openness a missionary needs if people are to listen to him. However, the emphasis on learning in an intensely biblical context has tremendous implications for all of these young people and their communities; as Adam and Eve discovered, acquiring knowledge does not come without pain and loss.
Geraldine Brooks doesn’t seek to blame her characters for their ambitions. However, she is clear that knowledge and learning matter, they are not toys for children and nor are they compatible with the innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall. Knowledge has the potential to change the world and ultimately, that’s what happens. The transformations Bethia, Caleb and Josh go through do more than change them as individuals, they contribute to the change in their entire society. Although the American Revolution takes place more than 100 years later, it could not have happened without people who were hungry for change within themselves as well as the wider world. Looked at from this point of view, Caleb’s Crossing is more than just a beautifully-written novel about growing up, although it is certainly that. It is about a whole society learning what it means to come to adulthood, make choices for itself and put some distance between itself and the culture it comes from.
As Caleb’s Crossing is in some ways a biblical parallel, readers won’t be surprised to know that it is full of description of landscape and environment. Much of this is beautiful, but not all of it. Cambridge has an ugliness that would be familiar to the denizens of one of the Bible’s nastier flesh-pots. Either way, the descriptions are often breath-taking in their clarity and add to the sense of the narrative’s grounding in a real place, albeit one that has changed beyond the original inhabitants’ wildest imaginings.
Harper Collins (2011) London EPUB ISBN: 9780007334643 410pp