May 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Caleb’s Crossing’ By Geraldine Brooks

By Kirsten Tranter

Caleb’s Crossing extends Geraldine Brooks’s interest in the early history of the United States, first explored in her Pulitzer Prize–winning March, which is set during the Civil War. Here, she writes about the seventeenth-century Puritan settlements in colonial Cambridge and on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where she now lives. The story was inspired, Brooks says, by her surprise in discovering that the first Native American graduate of Harvard was not only from Martha’s Vineyard, but graduated in 1665, in the very first years of the colony: this is the Caleb of the title, and the novel imagines the cultural and personal conflicts that might have accompanied his ‘crossing’ from his traditional world into the elite, English, Christian sphere of Harvard.

The story is told from the point of view of young Bethia Mayfield, Caleb’s close friend and the daughter of a sympathetic missionary. The novel is perhaps primarily a study of the place of women in Puritan society and of the challenges faced by intelligent girls with a desire for educational opportunities equal to their brothers. Caleb himself remains an opaque figure, rendered through Bethia’s psychologically limited perspective.

The scene in which Bethia is granted admission to John Harvard’s library captures Brooks’s skills in reportage, refined during her career as a journalist, and also the limitations of her fictional writing. There is every reason for this to be a moment of immense significance: the place stands for everything Bethia yearns for and is denied because of her gender. Yet she says simply, “It was the most beautiful room I had ever seen,” and continues with a catalogue of furniture, enumerating the rows of lecterns, shelves, endwalls and half-lecterns that hold the books.

Bethia’s suitor, Samuel, is struck by awkwardness as he shows her around, but the “rush of words and facts” that tumble out of his mouth is all of a piece with Brooks’s own irrepressibly pedagogic designs: we’re told that the library is based on those at Cambridge, England – “from whence our two presidents come” – as well as how many books were from John Harvard’s original bequest and how many have been added since. We learn a great deal about the attributes of the Harvard library but little about what, exactly, it has meant to Bethia.

Brooks’s chief desire seems to be to inform – to set before the reader a carefully researched historical picture. In these terms, Caleb’s Crossing succeeds. It will teach you a lot about race and status in colonial New England; the unstable relationship between progressive missionaries and Native Americans; Puritan misogyny; the quaint vocabulary used by colonists, and more. Despite the fascinating narrative material here, Brooks’s earnest intent makes only a limited attempt to engage the reader’s imagination, as though literature were primarily a scene of instruction, with some narrative diversion included to make the lesson more palatable and form treated as a functional vehicle for the transmission of certainties already decided in advance.

Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten Tranter is an author and literary critic. Her most recent book is Hold (4th Estate).

'Caleb’s Crossing', By Geraldine Brooks, HarperCollins, 400pp; $32.99
Cover: May 2011

May 2011

From the front page

Media unites

Legislation is needed urgently to protect the public’s right to know

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Vanishing voices

The cultural damage of homogenising language

Illustration

At home in the Antarctic

The screenwriters living with the crew of Mawson station

Image of the University of Sydney

Flat-earthers

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities


In This Issue

John Howard on the rise, 1984. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.

What’s right?

The future of the Liberal Party

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & the Platypus

A rapscallian's resort, Central Park. © Cameron Davidson / Corbis

Wanted for loitering

Central Park, New York

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Owners of Australia

Australia’s rich list


More in Arts & Letters

Photo of Blackpink at Coachella

Seoul trained: K-pop and Blackpink

Trying to find meaning in the carefully formulated culture of K-pop

Cover image of Underland by Robert Macfarlane

The chthonic realms explored in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’

Cave systems, mines, urban sewers, mycelial networks, moulins and more

Still image from 'High Life'

A master’s misstep: Claire Denis’ ‘High Life’

The French auteur chooses a sci-fi film to start over-explaining things

Photo of Leonard French underneath his stained glass ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Leonard French’s Balzacian life

Reg MacDonald’s biography may return this Australian artist to the national imagination


More in Noted

Still image from ‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti

‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti at Venice Biennale

The democratic ideal is explored in the Australian Pavilion’s video installation

Cover image of 'Animalia' by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

‘Animalia’ by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

The French author delivers a pastoral that turns on human cruelty

‘The Essential Duchamp’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

A comprehensive exhibition of the 20th century’s most influential artist

‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng

The medico-writer delivers a novel driven less by storyline than accumulated observation


Read on

Image of the University of Sydney

Flat-earthers

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities

Image of Quarterly Essay 74, ‘The Prosperity Gospel’, by Erik Jensen

Everymen don’t exist

On the campaign trail with Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten – a Quarterly Essay extract

Image from ‘Fleabag’

Falling for ‘Fleabag’

On the problematic hotness of Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest

Image of Costume at Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo 2019: Costume

The Tasmanian electro-orchestral pop artist makes a beguiling debut in Hobart


×
×