Geraldine Brooks is the author of a couple of hugely successful novels, 2008’s People of the Book and 2006’s March, an illumination/expansion of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that walked away with the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. This is no small accomplishment; it puts Brooks up there with such celebrated company as Toni Morrison, Michael Chabon and Edward P. Jones, and doubtless put some pressure on the author to come up with another suitably impressive novel.
Having never read Brooks before, I can’t vouch for whether March deserved the prize. I can only report that Caleb’s Crossing, although it succeeds as a satisfying and well-wrought story, is not a great deal more than that.
This is not a criticism per se; a satisfying and well-wrought story is what most readers look for when they choose to sit down with a book. Readers looking for stylistic or structural experimentation a la Morrison’s Beloved or Jones’s The Known World—or even Chabon’s The Amazing Adeventures of Kavalier and Clay—are apt to find something rather different here.
Like those books, however, Caleb’s Crossing is a historical novel, the setting being that of Puritan Massachusetts in the 1660s and early 1700s. The Puritans were, by modern-day standards, religious fanatics, with more than a little in common with the Taliban, and they ruled their territory with an unnervingly familiar blend of piety and ill-humor.
Bethia, the teenage girl who narrates this tale, is the daughter of a preacher whose brand of Christianity is a little less unforgiving than most of his neighbors’. With a following of like-minded families, he has removed himself to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, there to tend his sheep and his congragation—and to try to make inroads with the local Indian population. Not surprisingly, the indigenous tribes are skeptical of the settlers’ motives, but a series of circumstances has allowed them to reach a tentative understanding.
It’s on this island that Bethia grows up, surviving hardships and numerous calamities, the like of which were common for frontier families—illness and scarce food, bad weather and hostile natives. Here too she meets a young Indian boy and strikes up an unlikely friendship, learning his language even as she teaches him her own. This portion of the book, which could have been saccharine and unconvincing, avoids these pitfalls by remaining rooted in crisp sensory details—and by interspersing the tale of their budding friendship with wrenching scenes of hardship.
At length, through a series of unlikely but not unbelievable events, the Indian boy comes to stay with Bethia’s family as he studies under the tutelage of her father. This boy, who takes the Christian name of Caleb, is based on a real historical figure, the first Native American to attend Harvard College. When he does so, Bethia finds herself in the unexpected position of accompanying him there, not as a fellow scholar, but in an entirely less savory capacity.
Given the historical epoch and the Puritans’ strong belief in the limited roles that women should play in society, Bethia has no hope of attending classes. She must watch as her dull-witted brother, Makepeace, performs miserably and plots her ruin. Author Brooks contrives to find ways to make Bethia as interesting as possible, despite the societal limitations foisted upon her, and for the most part manages to avoid the sense that she is writing to satisfy the dictates of her early-21st-century readership.
Perhaps the strongest tool in Brooks’s arsenal is Bethia’s voice: strong, direct, free from self-pity and unusually quick in taking in the relevant detail of a place or scene. These are, of course, characteristics not of Bethia but of the author; but Brooks manages to imbue her narrator with them in a way that reads fluidly. “As that ripe summer turned to autumn,” she tells us early on, “the sunlight cooled to a slantwise gleam, bronzing the beach grass and setting the beetle-bung trees afire.” She is also capable of the off pithy observation: “They say the Lord’s Day is a day of rest, but those who preach this generally are not women.”
The story’s main narrative follows Bethia as she grows into young womanhood, with all the attendant choices this requires—mainly, deciding who to marry. There is a whiff of soap opera to this, but it’s undeniable that for such a woman in such a time and place, this would be her primary concern. The secondary storyline concerns Caleb, and follows—through Bethia’s eyes—his journey from uninhibited free spirit to something altogether more settled. This is the more interesting arc by far, and it’s to Brooks’ credit that she manages to resolve both narratives in a satisfying, even surprising, way.
Caleb’s Crossing will satisfy most readers looking for an engaging, immersive book to settle into, whether for a week’s summer vacation or an hour in the evening before bed. Its evocation of a distant past, a past that still influences the character of this nation, is effective, while the Bethia and Caleb are both figures who are apt to linger in the memory for quite while.