The hour is late. My eyes are sore, and my hand cramped. I can write no more. I will place this page with the others, in a pocket I have fashioned in my shakedown. But I cannot say if I will sleep this night.
Writing this confession has put my sins plain before me, and I do repent them. Since these matters of which I have written, and most certainly since my mother’s death, I have kept far from all the Wampanoag save for Iacoomis and his son, who are in every significant particular just as the English. I have felt no corrupt promptings towards idolatry such as formerly ensnared me.
But Caleb is coming this day. And what will become of me thereafter, I cannot say.
So writes Bethia Mayfield, narrator of Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing. Bethia is a young settler of what is now Martha’s Vineyard. Her father, a Puritan minister, has separated from John Winthrop’s colony and has helped found this island community where the English intend to live peacefully with the native Wampanoag. He is respected by many in both communities, though the tension between them is obvious, and it is well known that he has made an enemy of the local pawaaw or priest.
Bethia is devout, an obedient daughter who prays for her father’s missionary work while she harvests the beans. She is also far more academically inclined than her brother Makepeace, currently being tutored by their father in preparation for his matriculation to the young Harvard. Bethia longs for the educational opportunities offered her brother solely on the basis of gender, but consoles herself with what she can learn by eavesdropping on his lessons and sneaking off across the island on her horse with a surreptitiously borrowed book from her father’s library.
It is on one of these rides that she meets Cheeshahteaumauck, a young Wampanoag warrior and the pawaaw’s nephew, and an unlikely but intense friendship is kindled. He introduces her to a more intimate relationship with the natural world; she teaches him to speak and read English. And being a good missionary kid, she presents her gospel to him and is stymied by his insistence that he already knows God. The more he explains the religious practices of his people, the more curious she is about them and the more guilty she feels about her curiosity. And when tragedy strikes, she experiences it as divine punishment for dabbling in Wampanoag culture, and breaks off her friendship.
But when circumstances change yet again, Cheeshahteaumauck, who now calls himself by the English name Caleb, appears on her farm as a new convert, eager to join Makepeace in preparing to study for the ministry at Harvard. And even as Caleb crosses cultures and religions, becoming the first Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard, Bethia wrestles with cultural gender limitations and crosses her own spiritual and intellectual borders.
The novel is based on the bare facts known about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, the first Wampanoag graduate of Harvard. Brooks is a gifted storyteller, and has gorgeously realized this lost world, bringing every native sapling and ocean wave into raw, quivering existence. The natural descriptions are breathtaking, the plot is suspenseful, the character development is deep and thoughtful.
In creating Bethia, Brooks has given the story an earnest and sympathetic narrator. The challenges of Bethia’s position as a young woman are realistic. The range of Puritan perspectives in her community are presented accurately. And yet I found that Bethia is charmingly but unrealistically enlightened in her attitude toward the Wampanoag. Given the powerfully conservative influences in her life, I find it hard to believe that she would have come to such a progressive view so early on. The religious progressives of her day included John Eliot (whose son appears as a character in the novel), missionary to the so-called “praying Indians.” Eliot was often ostracized by his fellow Puritans for his progressive actions of establishing the praying Indian villages and educating the native people there—and these were communities where the natives were required to wear English clothes, build English houses, and farm with English techniques. And yet young Bethia, hearing the Bible read to her every day and her father’s dogmatic proclamations about the demonic practices of the Wampanoag, comes to see their religion as an equal to Puritan Christianity.
Bethia’s close friendship with Caleb is the rightful explanation of how she could discover another perspective and begin to move away from the narrow confines of her community’s core values, but to move as far as she does—especially as a woman—effectively would have removed her from her community of origin. I empathize with Bethia the more because of her willingness to expand her vision so far, but the unlikelihood that she could thrive in such a situation is the one element of this expertly-researched book that feels unrealistic.
Despite this hopeful anachronism, Bethia is the kind of character with which the reader develops a powerful kinship. Her and Caleb’s intertwined stories are a glorious glimpse of the wild, beautiful coast and the mutual friendships and misunderstandings of two peoples in uncomfortable proximity. Their story is one that will linger long in the imagination.
This review is cross-posted at The Discarded Image.