May 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Caleb’s Crossing’ By Geraldine Brooks

By Kirsten Tranter
'Caleb’s Crossing', By Geraldine Brooks, HarperCollins, 400pp; $32.99

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).

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