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.