There’s a lot to like about Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing.
Like The People of the Book, it explores the issues associated with culture clash– on this occasion between the Native Americans and the Puritan settlers on the island now known as Martha’s Vineyard.
It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, told through the eyes of Bethia, the daughter of the island’s Calvinist Minister.
Bethia first meets Caleb as a 12-year-old, when they become friends in secret – influencing each other in ways that inadvertently shape their futures. It’s only when Caleb comes into her home to study alongside Bethia’s priggish brother Makepeace that their lives become more entwined and complex.
Bethia’s father is committed to converting the Caleb’s Wampanoeg tribe to his strict faith, and while he has some success, he continually faces the wrath of the Wampanoeg’s own spiritual leaders.
Meanwhile, Bethia’s own encounters with the island’s original inhabitants leave her longing for a spirituality as visceral and raw as theirs, so far removed from her own austere experience of religion.
The theme of westerners learning to connect to nature through contact with less “civilised” peoples is not original, but Bethia’s awakening is still effective.
I found the early ideological conflict between the two cultures particularly interesting, with the nature of the story prompting the age-old questions about free will versus predetermination.
While the characterisation of Caleb is fictional, Brooks has still been able to use her meticulous research skills to paint a picture of what life was like for those early Puritan settlers – particularly women.
She also keeps Bethia’s narrative voice true to the time, with archaic speech patterns and terms that add authenticity to the story.
I’d probably say I appreciated this story more than I enjoyed it. Because while I have no doubt the tragedies and suffering Bethia and Caleb experience in the novel reflect the harsh realities of the times (physical, spiritual and emotional), I found it all a little too bleak in parts.
Still, readers who love well-researched, fact-based, historical fiction won’t be disappointed.