A Powerful Song

Caleb’s Crossing
Geraldine Brooks

Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer’s courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place as a man of affairs. He won the respect of those who had been swift to dismiss him. 

Strong-willed and intelligent, Bethia Mayfield often chaffed against the rules that bound her. Learning Latin and Greek second-hand as her minister father taught brother Makepeace, Bethia longed for more but was scolded by her father when she revealed her literacy: “…why do you strive so hard to quit the place in which God has set you? … women are not made like men. You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters.” The reader knows from the first pages that this is a woman sure to have no end of trouble.

But not only was Bethia quick-witted, she was also open-hearted towards the Indian people that lived in settlements throughout the island, even developing a secret friendship with young Cheeshahteaumauk, or Caleb, as she renamed him. For a few short years as children they shared the beauty of the island–and learned about each others’ foreign worlds. At the same time, Bethia’s missionary father makes inroads with the Wampanoag, bringing them Western “civilization” with its Puritan religion and lifestyle.

But life in Great Harbor on the island of Martha’s Vineyard was spare and loss was a close companion. In the space of little more than a year, Bethia lost her beloved baby sister as well as both father and mother. Orphaned and without prospects, Bethia is indentured so that Makepeace can attend  prep school in the hopes he will one day attend Harvard. Caleb, who as a teen had become her father’s protege, followed, hoping to be one of the first native young men to be admitted to Harvard’s Indian School.

One of my reader friends remarked that while she like the book, she wanted more of Caleb’s story, and the title is a bit misleading, for this is clearly Bethia’s story. Caleb only figures as a background character after the first section of the novel and he is always seen through Bethia’s eyes. So is the title a reference to Caleb’s crossing into New England society? Or his crossing over in death which figures so prominently at the novel’s end?

I loved that Brooks demanded her reader follow the language of Bethia’s time: salvages, rather than savages; bever, rather than lunch; chirurgical, rather than surgical. I was a bit disappointed that the author’s view of the Wampanoag shaman was so one-sided, focusing only on his dark medicine and making him the novel’s boogeyman. For all of her ability to present the dark and light sides of both English and Indian culture, Brooks fell a bit short here, especially since Bethia apparently understood and accepted the shaman’s power for Good.  Bethia’s last thoughts of Caleb open to a wider world:
“I do not know which home welcomed him, at the end. Whichever is was–the celestial English heaven of seraphim, cherubin, and ophanim, or Kietan’s warm and fertile place away in the southwest, I believe that his song was powerful enough for Joel to hear and to follow him there.”

A beautiful look at what unites rather than divides us humans, race, religion, and culture aside.

 

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