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).

From the front page

Image of former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in September. Image © Dan Himbrechts / AAP Images

Gladys for Warringah?

In attempting to take down an independent MP, Morrison is helping pro-integrity candidates across the country

Image of Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during Question Time earlier this week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Go figure

How did Labor end up with an emissions-reduction target of just 43 per cent?

In This Issue

Bluestone Bay, Tasmania. © Paul Sinclair / The Freycinet Experience

The quiet peninsula

Freycinet, Tasmania

A TPN rebel at base camp in the jungle of West Papua. © KC Ortiz

Spirit of independence

A journey through West Papua

Chris Lilley in characters. Courtesy of the ABC. © John Tsiavis

Can we be heroes?

Chris Lilley and the politics of comedy

The fifteenth-century Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali. © Alex/Morales/Bloomberg/Getty Images

To Timbuktu and back

Visiting a library in Mali


More in Arts & Letters

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

Abbotsford I

New poetry, after lockdowns

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors


More in Noted

Cover of ‘Crossroads’

‘Crossroads’ by Jonathan Franzen

The acclaimed US author’s latest novel is a 1971 church drama modelled on ‘Middlemarch’

Still from ‘Yellowjackets’

‘Yellowjackets’

The US drama about teen plane-crash survivors is a heady mix of folk horror and high-school betrayal

Still from ‘New Gold Mountain’

‘New Gold Mountain’

SBS’s Australian goldfields series looks beyond colonial orthodoxies to tell the neglected stories

Cover of ‘The Magician’

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín

The Irish novelist’s latest ponders creativity and the unacknowledged life of Thomas Mann


Online exclusives

Image of Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man