Australian-born Geraldine Brooks began her career as a journalist and has found considerable success in this country as a writer of fiction. Her first novel, “Year of Wonders,” was set in a small town in 17th-century England during an outbreak of the plague. She won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for “March,” in which she imagined the adventures of the absent Army-chaplain father and the inner life of the careworn mother from “Little Women” (a book she has said in interviews that she cherished during her girlhood). “People of the Book” was an ambitious work, weaving together the journeys of a brilliantly illustrated ancient Haggadah and the young rare-book expert hired to evaluate it in war-torn Sarajevo.
Her new book, “Caleb’s Crossing,” has a similarly exotic subject. It is, according to the author’s note with which it begins, “inspired by the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a member of the Wopanaak tribe of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard), born circa 1646, and the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard College.”
Little is known about the real-life Caleb, though the simple fact of his graduation from Harvard in 1665 intrigues. The university had been established six years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony with the purpose of educating “English and Indian youth.” One of its early sources of funding was a missionary group hoping to spread Christianity to create young leaders who could take its message back to their American Indian communities.
In fact, another Martha’s Vineyard Indian attended Harvard along with Caleb, his friend Joel Iacoomes. On a visit home shortly before graduation, he was shipwrecked and killed. At its 360th commencement in May, the university awarded an honorary diploma in his name. By an extraordinary coincidence, just as “Caleb’s Crossing” was appearing this spring, a young woman named Tiffany Smalley became the first Martha’s Vineyard Wopanaak Indian since Caleb to receive an undergraduate degree at Harvard.
Caleb’s crossing from his American Indian culture to membership in the educational elite of Colonial society is seen through the eyes of a fictional character, Bethia Mayfield, the island-born daughter of an English clergyman. As a child, she meets and secretly becomes friends with Caleb, who later seeks out her father to request instruction from him and comes to live with the family. Bethia’s own life is circumscribed by work (her mother has died, and at age 12, she runs the household) and by her father’s conviction that the learning she craves is for boys only - in particular, her despised elder brother Makepeace.
Bethia tells her story in language rich in archaic and Indian words - she eats in the “garth,” sets out “the scraps for bever and supper,” performs tasks that are by turns “friggling” and “cackhanded” and, at night, sleeps in a “shakedown.” Later, she takes employment in Cambridge, where “since the townsfolk do not trouble where they tip their slops, the air reeks, and everywhere the middens rise, rotting in steaming piles of clutter and muck.” Canoes are “mishoons,” Indian spiritual leaders are “pawaaws,” and their homes are “wetus.” On almost every page are richly evocative and often unfamiliar words.
Despite this archaic language, Bethia thinks like a modern girl. She frets that “from birth, others [have] ordained my life’s every detail” and wonders if the man she marries will “put a bridle on my mind and a branks upon my tongue?” She chafes not just at the multiple constraints on her life but also against the conviction among the English that the practices of their Indian neighbors are diabolical. When she happens upon an Indian celebration, what she observes strikes her not as strange or wicked but as “stately, dignified, entirely graceful.” She finds in it “power, spiritual power” which speaks to her far more than her own community’s “austere worship.”
This cultural clash between 17th-century Calvinism and American Indian spirituality is the fascinating subject at the heart of “Caleb’s Crossing.” To many readers, though, the mindset of Bethia’s Puritan community will seem as foreign as the Indian religion of Caleb’s people. Bethia, with her frustrations at home and her attraction to Caleb, seems to be more a mouthpiece for modern attitudes than a flesh-and-blood character.
Certainly women have long struggled with the expectations placed on them for mild manners, docile faith and willing subservience - Jo March comes to mind. But Jo is a character so real she practically leaps off the pages of “Little Women.” Bethia, whose thoughts “veer wildly,” who feels “the ground shift uncertainly,” whose cheeks are often “on fire,” and whose heart “flutters” and “thunders,” never shakes off these platitudes to become the living, breathing character who might help us understand a compelling aspect of our history or, more important still in a work of fiction, truly move us.
Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.