Viking: 306 pp., $ 26.95
Now say, have women worth? Or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen, is’t gone?…
Let such as say our sex is void of reason,
Know ‘tis a slander now, but once was treason.
Anne Bradstreet, “In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth,” 1643
“Caleb’s Crossing” begins with a confession and ends with resignation — with the happy surrender that the Puritans were famous for even though it bore little resemblance to the arrogance the same settlers often showed Native Americans. Bethia Mayfield, the 12-year-old daughter of a young minister, enjoys a 17th century childhood on the beautiful, wild island of Martha’s Vineyard and sees evidence of this arrogance all around her. She’s not allowed to study like her brothers even though she is smarter than the lot of them. She sees how the settlers treat the local Indians, the Wampanoag, and the disdain with which they regard a spirituality older than their own.
Bethia learns everything by eavesdropping — Latin, history, the Wampanoag language. From her mother and a local midwife she learns how to use herbs to heal. On one of her rides around the island on her horse, Speckles, she meets a young Wampanoag boy named Caleb. Caleb teaches her about his world; he shares practical information about the island’s best clam flats and berry patches. With Bethia’s parents and her oafish, overprotective brother, Makepeace, unaware of the friendship, the two grow up side by side, their bond always stronger than any flirtation. Bethia forms her own religion — a braiding of beliefs that is continually tested, reflected upon and improved. In her, Geraldine Brooks has created a multidimensional, inspiring yet unpredictable character. The novel’s title refers to Caleb’s journey from his world into Bethia’s, but it is really a book about both of them.
Then come deaths that place Bethia’s family’s future in jeopardy. Bethia’s grandfather indentures her to a schoolmaster in Cambridge in return for Makepeace’s tuition. The only solace she has is that Caleb and his friend, another Wampanoag named Joel — able students taught by Bethia’s father — will also go. True to the times, her only hope of a dignified life depends upon marriage, but Bethia holds firm through several possibilities. We would expect no less of her.
Brooks has based her novel on several historical facts, including the purchase from the Wampanoag and settling of Martha’s Vineyard by Puritans in the 1640s; the founding of Harvard College in 1636; the building of what was known as the Indian College on he grounds of what is now Harvard Yard in the 1650s (pulled down three decades later); and the graduation from Harvard in 1665 of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Wampanoag student (the second, Tiffany Smalley, graduated this month). The novel is peppered with references to well-known founding fathers in New England — the Winthrops, Eliots, Eatons, Lowells, Danforths and other educators as well as to poet Anne Bradstreet, whose work Bethia reads in secret. Bethia, Brooks writes in her afterword, was entirely made up.
Bethia’s forbearance, her quiet insistence, the way she creates her life using the best of whatever is handed to her, puts the struggles of American women today in perspective. Caleb’s steady focus on the future, on honing the skills that will make him a true advocate for his people, are equally uplifting. But that’s not all. For readers who know and love the islands off the coast of Massachusetts, descriptions of their wild days and their history will create a longing entirely appropriate in May — to go there, to look at that landscape again with a better understanding of the losses and triumphs that have enriched their history.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.