Sunday, May 15, 2011

Harlotized by Salvages

Geraldine Brooks won me over for life with her 2006 book, March. Since reading that, anything new from her has come to me as soon after release as is possible. I’ve likely said it before about other writers but I could read her grocery list with pleasure. Last week her latest book, Caleb’s Crossing arrived in my mailbox. Exactly as expected it gave me a day and more of wonderful reading.

Caleb’s Crossing is inspired by Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, who in 1665 became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Very little is known about Cheeshahteaumauk but the author proved with her Pulitzer Prize winning March that she has a talent for building stories upon one small sliver of fact. She proved it again in her next book, People of the Book, which turned another kernel of history into a richly textured story. In her own words Brooks describes the process as, “the right mix of knowns and unknowables—a lovely incomplete scaffold to build on.”

The story in this new novel is told through the eyes of fictional Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan minister, mid-seventeenth century living on the island we call Martha’s Vineyard. She and her family are among the colonial Puritans who first settled in the area of Massachusetts. Bethia and the other English share the island with a population of Native Americans, the Wampanoag. The young Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk is a “half-naked, sassafras-scented heathen anointed with raccoon grease” who teaches Bethia to walk silently through woods, to speak his language and to use the natural riches of their island, while she teaches him to read and speak English. Despite the huge differences in background and worldview Bethia and Caleb become friends over a period of months. This early friendship binds the two, but in a world where one’s destiny is almost immovably set by the circumstances of birth, anything beyond friendship is impossible. Do not mistake Caleb’s Crossing for a romantic story.

The book’s title speaks of only Caleb’s crossing but in fact Caleb and Bethia help each other to understand and appreciate their dissonant cultures. There is a secret pagan streak in Bethia and she scrabbles for all the knowledge she can about the spiritual world of the Wampanoag and their numerous gods. The reverse side is Caleb, with a sound belief in his people’s pantheon, but with an innate understanding that the future will be determined by the Whites with their one God, and with that a determination to educate himself in the ways of Christian culture. Something about this set up of cultural crossroads smacks of stale themes, but leave it to Geraldine Brooks to make of it something far from stale.

There is marvelous attention to detail in the physical descriptions of both characters and setting in Caleb’s Crossing, and for much of the book Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts are beyond mere locations, becoming characters that breathe as deeply as the Puritans and Native Americans. Far from its quaint and modern red brick beauty, the Cambridge of 1665 is painted as a vile malodorous town of mud wallows and primitive structures which Brooks describes as the “smear and stench of English industry” and the “unlovely town’ of Cambridge. Midway through the book Bethia is indentured to Master Corbett at his Latin preparatory school, a place “cold and clemmed, and all is drudgery.” Its opposite is Martha’s Vineyard, or Noepe as it was called by the Wampanoag, a near Eden of lush fertility and clear streams.

All but a few of the characters in this book are hard-minded people, perhaps a necessity for colonials hacking a life out of the wilderness among natives considered by most to be no more than ignorant savages. Puritan beliefs and customs were an unbending mold, shaping an almost brutish resolve to strengthen a community built upon a religious faith cruel by most descriptions. Bethia, as all Puritan women of her time, is taught to serve without question, to smother opinion and the desire for knowledge. In the author’s words, “Silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.” But largest of all is the book’s theme of disenfranchisement. Native brethren were cruelly marginalized by the Puritans, despite the desire and efforts made to Christianize them. Wrapped around all that is the sexism, the hypocrisy, severe religious strictures, and education in earlier times.

Like all good sculptors of literary character and personality, Brooks has filled her story with the word and idiom of English colonials, treating the reader to a colorful stew of early English. We get expressions like ‘square cap’ for scholar, and for unmarried pregnant woman it’s ‘harlotized,’ and ‘bastard-bellied’ as well as ‘forwhored.’ I had to refer to the dictionary to learn that ‘sennight’ is a week, but had no difficulty with Native Americans called ‘salvages’ rather than savages.

Like other work by Geraldine Brooks, this one too deserves all the stars and all the celebration.


  1. Book sounds really interesting. I will seek it out on my next visit to the library. Good post.

  2. Like you, love her writing. Even knowing what the book is about, had to skim through the paragraphs about the plot in case there were some spoilers. Will get a copy and add it to my always growing stacks of things to be read. Beginning to suspect there's not enough time in life to get to all the good ones. Yikes.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America