Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Brooks is an author of obvious talent, but something about this project did not satisfy me. Caleb’s Crossing is the fictionalized tale of the first (and possibly only) Native American to graduate from the Indian College, which was part of Harvard College in the 1600s. In an afterword, Brooks describes the actual events as they are known and understood by her. The “real” story was primarily inspiration for Brooks’s imagination, but only partly because the historical knowledge of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck’s life is so sketchy. Brooks maintains the primary skeletal features of the history in her narrator Bethia Mayfield’s telling, but deviates from various of the few known details.

I am sure there is rhyme and reason for all of her choices. For instance, I suspect that Matthew Mayhew (the historical name of the model for one of her characters) clanged in her literary ear. “Makepeace Mayfield” maintains alliteration but allows her to inject some Native American influence onto the colonists. The name change also separates the fictional Makepeace, something of a villain in the book, from the historical figure of Matthew Mayhew who she likely did not want to disparage. But something about the choice is discomfiting to me.

Whispering Gums has an excellent review of the book and compares it to a Kim Scott book that attempts a similar thing with respect to contact between early European settlers and Aboriginal Australians. I share Whispering’s tolerance for “loosely based” historical fiction. I loved Wolf Hall, for instance. Yet, I did not love this book.

One difference, I think, is that Mantel did not go around changing principal players’ names even if so many Catherines or Thomases can get confusing. Mantel’s project is entirely different, of course. Much is known about that time and many people know the players. Changing their names would be confusing to those who know something of the time.

Another difference is that I believe Mantel had something to say about Cromwell. She made Cromwell into a character who says something both about us and about the time. Brooks does not manage that. She manages an engaging, sometimes exciting, historical story. She does not challenge us the way Mantel does. Cromwell is not all likeability (though Mantel gives him a soft spot for small children and dogs), whereas Caleb and the narrator (Bethia Mayfield) are likeable in the extreme. They are two of the most attractive characters in the book, two of the most intelligent, two of the kindest, and two of the strongest-willed. I am suspicious of “perfect” characters. The sins of which Bethia is ashamed (e.g. questioning her Christian beliefs, not “knowing her place” as a female) are things that will endear her to most readers as an inquisitive and open-minded person.

Basically, Brooks makes it easy for the reader to know for whom they should cheer. The good people are almost always right. Bad people are almost always wrong. Still, I liked the book. Brooks has excellent pacing, does wonders with early American English (maintaining the flavor, but still generating smooth prose), and entertains. She does not do more than that. As an example of the prose, read this sample relating how Bethia learned, with her twin brother Zuriel, bits of the Wampanaontoaonk language while Joel Iacoomis taught it to her father:

For a time, when we were still very small, Zuriel and I made a covert game of learning it, and spoke it privily, as a kind of secret tongue between the two of us. But as Zuriel grew bigger he was less about the hearth, tearing hither and yon as boychildren are permitted to do. So as he lost the words and I continued to gain them, the game withered. I have often wondered if what happened later had its roots in this: that the Indian tongue was bound up in my heart with these earliest memories of my brother, so that, on meeting with another of his same age who spoke it, these tender and dormant affections awoke within me.

As Whispering points out, Brooks’s foreshadowing can be “rather heavy-handed” and the sexual tensions between Bethia and Caleb definitely needed “some resolution.” I would also add that the conceit of Bethia looking back does not completely work. She remembers details in the retelling, but then, a few pages later, seems to have difficulty recalling them. The book is not only Brooks’s work of imagination, Bethia is actively shaping the past too. These glimpses of Bethia’s reshaping of history, whether to fill gaps or for another person, are never developed beyond that. One might even think they are authorial mistakes. Brooks could have gotten more out of the device than she did. Without using her narrator’s occasional slips, she only manages to pull the alert (pedantic?) reader out of the story.

A particularly interesting aspect of Whispering’s review involves the question of whether writers should or should not “put[] modern attitudes into the mouths of historical people”. I am one of those people who is wary of that sort of thing.

Bethia goes out of her way to lament the suffering of a beached whale carved to death by the colonists. My concern is that this sort of thing could be added to endear Bethia to us. Modern readers will generally, if not unanimously, laud a character’s sentimentality towards animals, particularly those as intelligent as whales. Brooks vividly evokes the great creature’s mournful eye as the colonists begin butchering it while it lives. And Bethia’s concern for the whale is consistent with her character. Her empathy for “the other” is why she becomes a unique friend to Caleb, for instance, rather than condescending to him or regarding him with suspicion as an outsider.

This is all true, as is Whispering’s observation that “modern” attitudes do not just spring into existence from nothing. Sixteenth century colonists remain, though, products of their time and their communities. However special Bethia is, it is stretching credulity to place her well ahead of her time with respect to feminism, animal rights, racial equality, and the “many paths” approach to religion. Bethia was raised in the community by a minister father and she never left the community. Not that there then existed any communities which would have embraced any, much less all, of her relatively radical sentiments. Given the narrator’s many other admirable qualities, making her right about questions which were hardly even questions at the time, seemed to me to go too far.

Some people will really enjoy the book for the authenticity of its language, the beauty of its descriptions, the adventurousness of the story, and the likeability of most of the characters. This is a good book about mostly good people doing interesting things. There is little challenge though. Those few times where Bethia is uncertain of the right answer, the reader knows. All this makes me think Brooks was aiming at the bestseller audience rather than the literary crowd. I hope she gets her sales, because those looking for popular storytelling can do much worse than Brooks and Caleb’s Crossing.

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25 Responses to Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

  1. Justine says:

    Excellent review. Thanks. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Brooks’ work – both fiction and non-fiction – and I am looking forward to this one. I do understand your criticism though as I felt something similar with People of The Book – I loved it but was grated by the ease of everything falling together neatly.

    I will comment again once I’ve actually read the book!

    Happy 2012!

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks Justine. I look forward to your thoughts.

    I have not read anything else by Brooks, but wouldn’t be opposed based on the quality of the prose and the reader-friendly pacing. But I am not especially eager to for the reasons I mention.

    Happy 2012 to you too!

  3. It sounds bestsellerish, not at all tempting certainly. Perfect, modern day, rather liberal characters in a historic setting always rather annoy me (not because I’m in US terms a conservative, I’m not remotely, but because it’s nonsense).

    It sounds a bit obvious. Comfort reading. What made you pick it up?

    • Kerry says:

      You’ve summed up my general feelings nicely.

      On your question:

      Caleb’s Crossing was one of very few offerings my library had for Kindle loan and I wanted to try out the library loan feature on the Kindle, see how it worked.

      Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

      That’s pretty much it.

      I knew from other bloggers (Whispering Gums) and the general lack of acclaim for the book that it probably wasn’t great stuff. I probably should have waited for something better before trying out the library loan feature. I am not sorry to have read it though. Brooks is good enough that there are things to learn/appreciate about the mechanics of writing. I am also happy I to realize that some “bestsellerish” books are put together by quality craftsmen…..but I still do not enjoy them much.

      The library loan feature for the Kindle is a nice feature, but can be a little annoying to use. (I had to download the book to my computer then transfer it to the Kindle via USB. It only takes a few steps and a few minutes….but, on the Kindle, I’m used to making one click and having my chosen book available in a single minute.

  4. Sarah says:

    Year of Wonders came up last year at my book club. I, um, refused to read it. Not quite as parochial as it sounds (although I’m not sure the other members of the group would agree) but I flicked through and fortuitously (or not) stumbled upon some very unconvincing and apparently opportunistic sex. Not quite bodice-ripping but… Well, that was it for me.

    I’m a little in the dark about the Pulitzer. Am I correct in thinking that the judging criteria hinges on a resonant depiction of American life, rather than inherently literary qualities? Or have I got the wrong end of the stick?

    • Kerry says:

      Sarah,

      The fiction prize is: “For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).”

      What counts as distinguished definitely depends on the particular judges, but your sense is pretty accurate in practice, I think. Though I would argue it has a fairly good success rate in terms of recognizing literary novels. From winners in the past ten years I’ve read, I think these qualify as distinguished for their literary merit:

      A Visit From the Goon Squad
      The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
      The Road
      Gilead
      The Known World
      Middlesex

      By reputation, Olive Kitteridge would probably make that list too. That’s not to say I think all of those are the books by American authors that were the most accomplished literary achievements by American authors in those years, but they are all quite good.

      I do agree with Max, however, that it does appear to be biased in terms of subject matter and towards more “reader-friendly” books. In other words, the prize seems to be “risk averse”. Most of its recent winners probably have very good sales prior to their winning (with the notable exception of Tinkers which I have not read.

      • You must read tinkers. Embers is to Kerry what tinker is to Kevin. Yep, that sums it up. Very nice to see a substantial post from you. Always a treat. Read March with great enjoyment espeically the opening sections. That’s my only familiarity with Brooks. I think I like her better through your lens than through my own two eyes. Many cheers, K

      • Kerry says:

        Tinkers it is. It will be my top priority at the close of TOB. And not via the library. Thanks for the recommendation, Kevin.

        Yours is high praise indeed.

        And thank you, generally, for the comment.

  5. The Pulitzer isn’t a prize I put any weight on at all. That may be unjust, but it seems too influenced by non-literary factors such as subject matter (as you say Sarah). There are I think better prizes.

  6. Excellent review Kerry (and thanks for the link) … seems like you feel pretty much as I did. Brooks is a good storyteller and her writing is nicely expressive, but it’s not challenging (as you say), and just a little “loose” in conception. My favourite of hers is March – it’s her most interesting piece of fiction for what she set out to do. But, probably my favourite of hers are her two non-fiction works, particularly Nine parts of desire about women’s lives in the Middle East.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, Whispering. I did agree with your assessment. I think I will keep a sharper eye out for her non-fiction than her fiction. But if March falls into my hands, your and Kevin’s enjoyment will encourage me to open it.

      • I believe, from a wide variety of sources, that Tinkers is excellent … I have it on my lent TBR! And still I’m not getting to it.

        As for March, it’s not a must read, but I think you’d find it interesting to get your teeth into if, as you say, it crossed your path one day.

  7. PS Kerry, I don’t think your link to my review is working. I thought it was weird that I hadn’t received one of those approve pingback emails … so I came back and clicked on your link. It looks OK but it doesn’t work (for me at least).

  8. Michelle says:

    The only Brooks I’ve read is March, and I did enjoy it, although it’s been a few years now… Perhaps what made that book easier to “like” was that although she did base a lot of her research on Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, the book takes up with a fictional story, and not a real one. So any question of deviation from what is “true” is beside the point. But not having read any of her other books, I can’t yet compare. Someone gave me People of the Book, and Year of Wonders but I haven’t started either, so that probably says something…

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you for the comment, Michelle. I will not be afraid to read March, but I won’t run out to get a copy either. The consensus seems to be that it is good, but not necessary.

      I won’t read too much into the others sitting on your shelf, as the reasons for my continual bypassing of books by authors I love (and authors I like) often has little to do with whether I think they’ll be good (or even great). A novel on the shelf is more easily forgotten than a novel in the bookshop….somehow. Even with my conscious effort to avoid buying (too many) more books before polishing off very esteemed books on hand, I sneak to the library for “new” stuff that, often, isn’t “new” at all. They just happen not to be on my shelves.

      I do not mean to suggest you are as ridiculous as I am, only that I don’t believe any reliable conclusions can be reached from the fact of Brooks’s novels sitting unread on your shelves.

  9. anokatony says:

    You’re right about the pedantic strain. I thought “Caleb’s Crossing’ was meant more for high school readers, but I enjoyed the novel at that level. I thought Brooks might be going for the textbook market. As far as modern attitudes in historical novels, we must remember it was these Puritan descendents from the northeast United States who drove the abolitionist movement which ultimately got rid of slavery in the United States. I do believe that a minister’s family would have more enlightened attitudes toward their fellow humans, although a lot of these evangelical preachers give the lie to that,

  10. Kerry says:

    Your surmise that Brooks is “going for the textbook market” is a good one. The book makes better sense to me if I slot it into the high schooler/textbook market. It is historical enough to be useful in that context, it is entertaining enough to be read, and there’s nothing very morally challenging (to a modern reader) in it.

    Your point about northeastern protestants and abolition is a good one. I am not positive that solves all Brooks issues with anachronism, but it certainly is a point in her favor.

    Thanks, as always, for your insightful comments.

  11. ClaireMcA says:

    Just finished this and reviewed it also and had similar misgivings, I enjoyed the read but was more interested in the character of Caleb who wasn’t developed much once they left the island, always in the background with a promise of getting closer, but he wasn’t the protagonist so I guess therein lies the reason.
    However he is a real life character and an interesting one that little is known about and starting to be recognised (the recent unveiling of a painting of him at Harvard).
    The language used was interesting and it is wonderful that this character and period in history is at least being given recognition.

    • Kerry says:

      Claire,

      I enjoyed your review and agree that there was too little of Caleb. As you say in your own review (and here), Caleb was, somewhat oddly, not the central figure of this narrative. Despite being ostensibly about “the first Native American to graduate from Harvard” (I’m quoting noone, fyi), Caleb does seem very removed from most of the story. Bethia is telling the story but not, say, as Nick in The Great Gatsby or Wharton’s narrator in Ethan Frome. In other words, it certainly is possible to write a book where the narrator is not the protagonist, but Brooks did not choose to do that here. You’ve pointed out that this would’ve required more imagination, maybe too much for both Brooks and Bethia to really “know” Caleb. Still, like you, I would’ve liked more of Caleb rather than the somewhat distant character he remains throughout the book.

      I do agree that there is a place in literature for exploration of the early settler/Native American experience. I just wanted more.

      Thank you very much for your comments and for your excellent review of the book too.

      Kerry

  12. ClaireMcA says:

    How interesting that you mention ‘Ethan Frome’, I just finished reading it and it will be my next review posting. While everyone else commemorates Dicken’s, I’m paying homage to Wharton and this is the first of her books I have read. I am enjoying finding connections with her.
    Thanks for your response to my review and comments, it makes the experience all the more rewarding for having shared it with like minded readers.

    • Kerry says:

      Don’t you just love reading serendipity like that. And Ethan Frome is one of my all-time favorites. I am with you in preferring Wharton, though I did go through a Dickens phase (pre-Wharton). Thanks, again, for your comments.

      • Hard one really. I adore Wharton — have read many of her novels and a few short stories — but Dickens does have the humour/satire that gives his books a lift. I wouldn’t say I prefer him at all, but I wouldn’t discount him either. I do like a good bit of satire, I must say.

      • Kerry says:

        For a long time, Great Expectations was on my shortlist of “five favorites”. In fact, on some days it still makes it precisely because of the humor…and a little nostalgia on my part.

        So, I am not among those (some of whom I know) who cannot stand Dickens. But I do prefer Wharton. (In fairness, I have read less of her work than of Dickens’, so my estimation of Dickens may be watered down by memories of his lesser works whereas I have only read outstanding stuff by Wharton).

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