Caleb's Crossing – Geraldine Brooks

Christmas is coming and any author worth their salt knows this is the time to have a new offering in the display windows of bookshops all around the country – and this year is no exception. Conversely to what you may think, it is a time I dread. Perhaps it makes it easier for buying pressies, but I despair when favoured wordsmiths have new wares to sell, sitting there, tantalisingly under my nose, sort of demanding to be purchased for myself. And they’re there – newbies from some of my favourites: Winton, Theroux, Bryson, Douglas Kennedy and Seb Faulks. As to why I hate it? Well invariably their previous best seller is waiting in a pile in the man cave for me to get around to reading and low and behold, before I’m on to their last – well you get the idea.

But I avoided it with Geraldine Brooks. I put that to rights. Yes I did. Her latest, a biblical opus about King David, ‘The Secret Chord’ (not so sure I’m wholly tempted by the subject matter), is in the stores and I’ve just put down ‘Caleb’s Crossing’. But please don’t tell anyone – her ‘March’ is still in one those piles. But at least I’ve read her last. It seems like only yesterday I was at her book signing in Hobs for that offering, but when I checked its publication date I saw 2011. Golly gosh, I couldn’t believe it.

calebs crossing

But, gee, she’s very good with ‘Caleb’s Crossing’, is the Pulitzer Prize winner. Her prose fair zings off the page; a prose that may just represent the form of the language as spoken circa 1660 in the English colonies of the New World, with glorious words from the local Indian dialect thrown in as well.

As she states in her author’s note, the story as told is inspired by her discovery of, as well as being intrigued by, one Caleb Cheeshahteaumack of the Wôpanâak tribe, the traditional owners of Noepe – better known these days as Martha’s Vineyard. Brooks’ novel is largely set there, as well as on the mainland, at Cambridge. It’s the home of that august learning institution, Harvard.

Little is known of Caleb, but our author places fictional meat on what is there. She imparts the saga from the viewpoint of Bethia Mayfield from one of the of the settler families on the island. At the commencement she is a mere slip of a girl, meeting the salvage (savage) out in the wilderness that’s on her doorstep. As they nurture each other in their respective ways a bond builds between the two – she’s later his champion and semi-carer. He gradually makes the transition into white man’s society – and a man’s world it decidedly was then. As Ms Brooks tells it – what he left, though, had much to recommend it.

We sort of get a double whammy with this title. The initially civil relationships between the Indians and the interlopers has, by the end of Bethia’s life, morphed into open warfare (no guesses who wins that one). So it is a take on the constant that whenever Christian Europeans (be they empire-builders, escapees from another form of religious intolerance or fired with missionary zeal) and native populations collide, it it devastating for the latter. As well, in writing it from the position of a female inhabitant, we see the subjugated role of women during those times. Seems the natives were somewhat less so in that regard. Bethia comes from a reasonably enlightened family situation, but she is still stifled and all the important decisions about her are made by the men-folk. Her life in the most is protestantly bleak and confined, where the one god of her beliefs is all demanding. In contrast, the island’s original peoples are polytheist, but the big guns and better medicines of the newcomers convince them that they would be better off converting. But by the end Bethia is not so certain this is entirely as it should be.

In the final pages of the book Geraldine B relates, in more detail, how much of the tale had a factual basis. Little remains of Caleb’s existence though – a single example of his hand in Latin, which form the book’s endpapers, as well as some writings from contemporary observers. But it is an amazing construct the former Aussie has built around that. Rich in the detail of the period, it is sourced from perhaps what is a neglected era of America’s history, pre-Revolutionary War. In these years the nation’s future was also in the balance in terms of how it would all pan out with the clash of cultures. In the end the pagans were forcibly bent to the will of superior force. Nothing much changes.


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