Books: Caleb’s Crossing

Having enjoyed Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book so much, I decided to listen to the audiobook version of Caleb’s Crossing. It has a lot of features that appeal to me – it’s historical fiction, and it deals with themes related to cross-cultural communication, religious faith, and education.

I was fascinated by the depiction of life in the 1660’s, told by a minister’s daughter named Bethia. The language uses a variety of words unfamiliar to the modern reader, but never difficult to understand in context. This archaic phrasing helps reinforce the sense of the story being solidly set in the past, in a cultural context very different from ours.

The Wampanoag, the native people of the island where Bethia’s family lives (today’s Martha’s Vineyard), have of course a culture even more unfamiliar to us. Yet there are also aspects of their culture that will probably appeal more to today’s reader than that of the English colonists, who often come across as narrow-minded, prejudiced, and joyless moralizers.

Yet even the settlement led by Bethia’s father and grandfather is liberal-minded in comparison to that on the mainland, which her grandfather left for the relative freedom on the island. The exact nature of their religious faith was somewhat unclear, but there seemed to be Anabaptist tendencies, which I knew had been present in that era but I didn’t know they were in that region.

Bethia’s own views are also hard to pin down, as much of the story is told retrospectively, recounting what she sees (at the time of writing down her memories) as her own past failings. Whatever her changes in belief or behavior, however, she clearly does not share the usual colonist’s dismissive view of the “savages” and their culture, and their likewise dismissive views on the potential for either the natives or women to benefit much from education.

These form the main conflicts of the novel, Bethia’s desire for an education, and her family’s goal of educating the Wampanoag (along with converting them to Christianity). There is also conflict within family and community, both for Bethia and Caleb (the young Wampanoag with whom she develops a secret friendship).

What makes the book rather difficult for at least the first half is that it’s difficult to see what is the central storyline. Is it about Caleb, as one would expect from the title? Or is it about Bethia, who tells the entire story from her own perspective? Caleb is a significant but not major character for much of the novel. And Bethia’s rambling recollections of earlier experiences can leave the reader wondering what the book is really supposed to be about.

The focus becomes clearer once the setting shifts to Cambridge, where Caleb and another young man aim to become the first native graduates of Harvard college. Bethia remains uncertain, however, to what extent they have set aside their people’s pagan beliefs and practices.

Some reviews criticize Brooks for having put modern attitudes into a historical character. Would a young woman such as Bethia really have such enlightened views (from our perspective) on native culture and women’s rights and abilities? I don’t know – there are always people who think and act very differently from the rest of society.

None of us can know, of course, how someone would have thought back then, other than what is actually preserved in writing. (And people with socially unacceptable ideas are unlikely to have much written down that survives.) We can try to set aside our own views to get an idea how people think in other cultures. But it’s impossible to avoid seeing through the lenses of our own culture and experience. We can only try to counter that bias by being aware of it.

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