The historical novel is at its best in Brooks’ colonist tale
by Rob Neufeld
Bethia Mayfield, 15-year-old daughter of a liberal, Massachusetts Bay Colony missionary, falls in love with Cheeshahteaumauk, renamed Caleb, a powerfully poised Wampanoag prince.
After a year of secret (platonic) meetings with Caleb while gathering food on what is now Martha’s Vineyard, and after Caleb’s long manhood ritual and a smallpox plague, Bethia hears news of Caleb’s arrival at her father’s place for an English education.
“Now, here in the scant days I have left before Caleb comes to us,” Bethia affirms, “I have decided to set down my spiritual diary, and give an accounting for these months when my heart sat so loose from God.”
It’s Bethia’s voice we hear through all the pages, one that is both of its time and place; and accessible.
Brooks reads from and signs her novel, “Caleb’s Crossing,” just out in paperback, at Malaprop’s Bookstore, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
More miraculous than fantasy
I don’t know why so many people have leapt to fantasy fiction from historical fiction. Good historical fiction is better fantasy than most fantasy because its characters are less melodramatic, and there’s no line between familiar and miraculous.
In one scene in “Caleb’s Crossing,” Bethia—silent and observant like her mother—overhears Caleb reading a passage in Hebrew from “Jeremiah” for his schoolmaster. The words make the centuries disappear between the priests in the Bible and those she’s seen doing a dance in a sacred hollow.
“His voice, in the ancient tongue,” Bethia notes, “took on a different pitch and tone. It went through me that he chanted the words in the voice of a pawaaw…and, with that thought, I was under the gaily-colored headland again, the wild, fierce prayers rising into a flame-lapped sky.”
Bethia is not only familiar with Wampanoag customs, but attracted to them; and finds herself resolving their goodness with Christian concepts of virtue and sin. The Bible-reading scene then delivers an extra crunch.
Caleb’s master translates what Caleb had read into English: “Let us go into the fortified cities and perish there…behold, terror.”
Compassionate and staunch
A glimpse of any part of the novel tells you what the above glimpse indicates: the book immerses itself in the question of the nature and power of God. Meanwhile, it is lyrical and particular.
Long looks discover many complex themes—including the character of ministers.
Whereas the father/minister in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, “The Poisonwood Bible,” set in the Congo, is a hard-hearted man, the father in “Caleb’s Crossing” is a compassionate believer in Christ, Satan’s power, and salvation.
One night, around the family hearth, Bethia diverts attention from her agitation by asking, “Does it trouble you, father, that the people of this place are so slow to embrace the gospel?’
“We must not be willful in this matter, but patient, as God is,” father responds. “We are instruments…The devil drives on their worship so pleasantly.”
Father is a hands-on minister. He does garden work; he heals; he speaks Wampanioag, though clumsily. Bethia’s understanding of native ways and language is much more thorough, as is Caleb’s of the English ways. ”Caleb’s Crossing” involves more than one crossing.
Crossing a dark place
The crossing is not only across a bridge, as with Caleb’s trip from the island to the college which would become Harvard, but also across a metaphysical battle zone.
When Bethia tells Caleb that he must not make assumptions about the motives of her grandfather (the pioneer minister who “bought” his land from the Wampanoag), Caleb responds, “‘Must not!’ I am full up to my throat with ‘must not.’”
“You English,” he continues in a burst of repressed anger, “palisade yourselves up behind ‘must nots.’ And I commence to think it is a barren fortress in which you wall yourselves.”
Nevertheless, as Caleb’s pawaaw, his uncle, testifies to Bethia, “Your God may be stronger than these; I see that. As I see that he will prevail.. But…I will not abandon my familiars and the rites that are due to them.”’
Brooks based her novel on the true story of Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Whereas fantasy can explore what if’s in real time, in historical fiction they can only take place in characters’ daydreams.
Brooks’ approach allows for more pathos. Bethia, denied delusional hope, must reflect on events with a Calvinist’s sobriety.
Looking back on her life, including the time of King Philip’s War, she calls Caleb a hero, and says that she is not one. “Life has not required it of me,” she continues. “But neither will I go to my grave a coward, silent about what I did, and what it cost.”
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2011; Penguin Nooks paperback, May 2012, 326 pages, $16)
AUTHOR AND EVENT
Geraldine Brooks, native Australian and now Martha’s Vineyard resident, is the author of “Year of Wonders”; “Nine Parts of Desire”: “March,” Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction in 2006; and “People of the Book,” Australian Book of the Year in 2008.
She presents her novel, “Caleb’s Crossing,” at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 7 p.m., Wed. Tickets are $10 each. Call 254-6734.