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Review: In 'Caleb's Crossing' by Geraldine Brooks, Puritan woman and Harvard's first American Indian graduate challenge beliefs

Pity the fate of a young woman born with a love of learning to Puritans in the 1660s. Bethia Mayfield works all day and is denied schooling because it's unseemly for a girl. Her mother has died, and her well-meaning father's greatest ambition for her is to marry the nearby farmer's son.

Or maybe, don't pity her. Bethia eavesdrops on her brother's Hebrew and Latin lessons when her father instructs him in the languages required for a future minister. She secrets away books to read on her own. Best of all, she escapes on her pony to explore the far reaches of the untrammeled island where she lives (known today as Martha's Vineyard).

It's on one of these excursions that she meets Cheeshahteaumauck, the young son of a Wampanoag chieftain. She calls him Caleb; he calls her Storm Eyes. Together they pursue an unlikely friendship that lasts for years, all the way through Caleb's graduation from Harvard College in 1665. (Although Bethia is fictional, Cheeshahteaumauck was a real person, the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard.)

Caleb's Crossing is a novel that personalizes well-researched history, and author Geraldine Brooks has made a career of doing just that. Her novels often look to the past, trying to shake off the cliches of what we think we know in order to see people who lived in the past as both different and not different from ourselves. Her previous novel, People of the Book, looks at the history of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Europe via the lens of a holy book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. Year of Wonders tells of the plague in 17th century England. Her 2005 novel, March, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for its story of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of the father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. While his daughters grow up safe at home with Marmee, March goes off to help fight for the Union and against slavery. He finds his own idealism shattered by what he witnesses both on and off the battlefield.

The setting of Caleb's Crossing mines similar themes. Bethia's father seeks to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity. Bethia, meanwhile, is spying on the beguiling rites of the Wampanoag and learning the ways of the island from Caleb. After a smallpox plague devastates the tribe, Bethia's father takes Caleb in as a sort of foster son, hoping that Caleb will eventually learn enough to attend Harvard, become a minister and convert his own people.

Caleb, meanwhile, has his own reasons for agreeing to study the ways of the whites. In a moment of reckoning with Bethia, Caleb explains his motivation: "We must find favor with your God, or die. That, Storm Eyes, is why I came to your father. . . . That is why I will go to this Latin school, and the college after, and if your God prospers me there, I will be of use to my people, and they will live."

Brooks includes many plot twists and turns, and her language is lyrical and pleasing, not too archaic but definitely not modern. Her details convince, from the wild beauty of Martha's Vineyard to the dank streets of Cambridge. (She shows Caleb's physical vitality draining away as he exchanges the rigors of the island for hours of studies indoors.) Caleb's Crossing would be an excellent selection for book groups, especially those who read 2009's The Wordy Shipmates, a book by NPR commentator Sarah Vowell that also explored what the history of the Puritans means for us today.

Caleb graduates from Harvard, but one of the bewildering notes of Caleb's Crossing is the way the hard clash of competing belief systems — puritanical Christianity vs. superstitious paganism — gradually fades away. Brooks' intent is to show that friendship is stronger than dogma, but the ending leaves many questions. Does Bethia still believe in the strict Christian religion of her family and community? Has Caleb embraced the spirituality of his own people, rejecting his years of study? Do Bethia and Caleb overcome religious differences and contradictory systems of knowledge, or do they just let go of their beliefs, allowing them to fade away in the face of vivid experience? It's actually hard to tell, and it sometimes feels as if it's the author who is avoiding hard choices.

Brooks has the good sense not to try to give this story a happy ending. We're left with a strong sense of foreboding, both by the events of the novel, and because we know the terrible things that await Caleb's people as more European settlers arrive and pursue expansion. Bethia calls her story "a dissonant and tragical lament." It's a sadness that invites the reader to engage with history in deeply personal terms.

Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at holan@politifact.com.

Caleb's Crossing

By Geraldine Brooks

Viking, 320 pages, $26.95

Review: In 'Caleb's Crossing' by Geraldine Brooks, Puritan woman and Harvard's first American Indian graduate challenge beliefs 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 5:30am]

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