Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Caleb's Crossing"
by Geraldine Brooks
The narrative skills of this Pulitzer-Prize winning author impressed me.  There was not one occasion when I paused to note an awkward phrase or cringe at stilted or unnecessary dialogue.  All of the important characters were well-rounded and authentic to the second half of the 17th Century yet universally identifiable.  Sensory detail was evocative.  The thought processes of the narrator character were interesting and realistic. 
Here is an example of narrative eloquence.  Late in the story the main character, Bethia Mayfield, an old woman soon to die, tells us: “God is gathering me, little by little.  He has already taken much but he has left me my sight, and for that I am thankful.  I can still see the glory of his sunrise through the wavy panes of my chamber window.  I can still watch the wind riffle across the water, the osprey’s sudden plunge from the sky, the thunderheads gathering in billowing, wine-dark blooms.  I sit here, propped up like a poppet, and I watch.  I watch, and I remember.  Now, when everything else has gone, this is what remains: vision and memories.”
At the story’s beginning Bethia, twelve, lives with her preacher father, housekeeping mother, and jealous, discontented brother Makepeace on what today is Martha’s Vineyard.  Her father’s purpose in life is to convert the Algonquian “salvages” living on the island to Christianity.  “‘For several years I drank the dust of those huts, helping in whatever practical thing I could do for them, happy to win the ears of even one or two for a few words about Christ.  And now, at last, I begin to distill in their minds the pure liquor of the gospel.  To take a people who were traveling apace the broadway to hell, and to be able to turn them, and set their face to God….  It is what we must strive for.  They are an admirable people, in many ways, if you trouble to know them.’”  He had taken to live in his house an outcast of the local tribe, a man named Iacoomis, possessing a quick mind, to learn English.  The native, in turn, sought to teach Preacher Mayfield Wampanaontoaonk speech to assist Mayfield’s mission.  Bethia, possessing also a sharp mind, “confined to the hearth and the dooryard as adult business ebbs and flows around her,” had learned Iacoomis’s language faster and better than her father.  It is both her ability to speak the native language and her independent spirit and thirst for knowledge that causes her to live a life fraught with inner and external conflict.
It is Bethia’s independent nature and aversion to obey Puritan dictates especially concerning the role of girls and women that cause her to explore secretly the far reaches and shorelines of the island.  During her explorations she encounters a local native boy approximately her age.  Being able to speak his language, they develop a friendly relationship that becomes strong and enduring.  His English name will be Caleb.   Part of the fascination of this novel is how their lives intertwine.  Many of the best scenes in the novel are the interchanges they have that reflect both their divergent cultural viewpoints and their deep friendship and great concern for each other’s welfare.  Their relationship transcends the bigotry toward “salvages” prevalent among the British settlers and the resultant hostility harbored by the native inhabitants, protective of their territory, culture, and religious practices and beliefs.  Bethia’s actions at the end of the novel regarding Caleb’s welfare epitomizes the singularity of their relationship.
Of particular interest to me were the conflicts, inner and external, that Bethia must confront. 
She abhors not being afforded the right to make her own decisions.  A female’s role in her society was predetermined exclusively by men.  Girls were not to be educated beyond the ability to become good housewives.  Bethia’s father stopped her education when she was nine while her plodding brother Makepeace continued to be educated, laboriously, for admittance into Harvard College.  The father tells Bethia, “‘I would do you no favor if I were to send you to your husband with a mind honed to find fault in his every argument or to better his in every particular.  A husband must rule his home, Bethia, as God rules his faithful.’”  Her father and grandfather choose for her to marry (when she is of a proper age) the son of a prosperous, upstanding neighbor.  After her father’s death, Bethia’s grandfather arranges to have her indentured to a Cambridge school master to pay for Makepeace’s college preparatory instruction.  For four years she is Master Corlett’s housekeeper.  Late in the book, speaking to her master (and future father-in law), she reflects: “My father had loved me dearly; Master Corlett, I believed, felt true affection for me.  Both were learned men who devoted their lives to teaching others.  Then why not me?  Why did they want to confine me in the prison of my own ignorance?    Once again I had spoken too freely.  I seemed too dense witted to learn the simple lesson: silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.”  When her future husband challenges her independent spirit, she declares hotly: “‘Since God has seen fit to take my parents from me, I see no one left above me whose views on my conduct matter more to me than my own.’”  
Bethia must also deal with her society’s belief in an authoritative, punitive God.  Her faith in His existence is constant, but her nature is such that her conduct often strays beyond His dictates of behavior.  Tragic events that occur to her she believes to be God’s punishment.  Her mother dies in childbirth.  It is God’s punishment for Bethia’s sinful behavior.  “I broke the Commandments, day following day.  And I did it knowingly.    Like Eve, I thirsted after forbidden knowledge and I ate forbidden fruit.    Every inlet and outcrop of this place, I love.  We are taught early here to see Nature as a foe to be subdued.  But I came, by stages, to worship it.  You could say that for me, this island and her bounties became the first of my false gods, the original sin that begot so much idolatry.”  After her mother’s death, Bethia believes it is her duty (her reparation) to assume at age fifteen all of her mother’s duties.  After her father’s unexpected death, she feels it is God’s expectation that she accept indenture to Master Corlett to enable her brother’s continued college preparatory instruction.   
Hers, however, is an inquiring mind.  She questions, at the age of fifteen: “Who are we, really?  Are our souls shaped, our fates written in full by God, before we draw our first breath?  Do we make ourselves by the choices we our selves make?  Or are we clay merely, that is molded and pushed into the shape that our betters propose for us?”  About her father and grandfather’s selection of her future husband, “There was a little ember of anger inside me when I thought this, a hard black coal that could be fanned into a hot flame if I chose to let my thoughts give it air.  Most of the time, I did not do so.  I went on, dutiful, trying to keep in mind what father preached, that all of this was God’s plan, not his, not his father’s, nor any man’s.”  Caleb had embarked on his solitary journey into the deep woods to find his spirit guide, which would “enlighten his mind and guide his steps in myriad ways, until the end of his life.”  She, her father, and their Puritan neighbors looked upon spirit guides as manifestations of the devil.  She questions God’s supervision.  “… did God make no design for the heathen?  If so, what was father about, in his ministry to them?  Perhaps it was pride, merely, to seek these souls that God had chosen to abandon.  Perhaps it was in itself a sin….  But no.  Surely my wise father could not err so.  And why had God brought Caleb into my path if I was not meant to save him?  Why had he set us down here at all?”  Inquiry reveals incongruity, which, in turn, produces confusion, doubt and, perhaps, anger.
My criticism of “Caleb’s Crossing” – that Bethia is a rather contrived character – is mitigated by the fact that she is a damned interesting person whom every reader will care about.  The fact that she approximates a modern liberal-minded human being living in a three hundred fifty year old, close-minded society makes her especially appealing.  Because the author must adhere to the facts that are known about the historical person -- Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck – the first native graduate of Harvard University, and she has chosen to narrate the story from Bethia’s viewpoint, she must contort the events of Bethia’s life to maintain her close proximity to him.   This novel was an ambitious undertaking.  The results should mostly be applauded.