When two worlds collide into respect, friendship and love, it can make for a great story. When two worlds are torn apart by prejudice and fear, it can make for a tragic story (but still a great one). Geraldine Brooks’ novel, Caleb’s Crossing, becomes both of these by the end.
Set in Great Harbor on the island that is now Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1660’s, the story is told by Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a missionary intent on “civilizing” the Native Americans of the area. While she is young, she befriends a boy of the Wopanaak tribe living on the same island. She ultimately names him Caleb while he calls her Storm Eyes. Going against her father’s wishes, she is fascinated by secretly watching the religious rites of Caleb’s tribe which she describes as “the wild, fierce prayers rising into the flame-lapped sky.” She finds these celebrations in great contrast to the seemingly dour version of Christianity with which she is being raised.
Bethia’s independence and intelligence is both a curse and a blessing to her well-meaning father for the time period in which they live. He fears letting her learn too much even though he knows how bright she is. Bethia is left to learn on her own however she can manage. Usually her education takes place by overhearing lessons being taught to the boys of her village. Ultimately, circumstances allow for her father to teach several of the Native American boys including Caleb. Caleb becomes an excellent student and the Missionary Society that supports Bethia’s father pays for him to attend Harvard University on the mainland. Bethia accompanies Caleb to Harvard as an indentured servant.
Some interesting aspects of the novel come in the character of Bethia’s father. While by today’s standards he might be considered mis-guided in some of his actions, he truly is wanting to help the island tribe and acknowledges that he and his people can learn from the Wopanaaks. He sees the possibility of a mutually beneficial relationship and casts out any idea of conquering the tribe for monetary benefit (a thought others on the island frequently consider).
Bethia’s intrigue in the ways of the Wopanaaks open up to her questions about the ways of her religion; however, she never really abandons the faith with which she was raised. Although in the final pages of the novel, at risk of heresy and blasphemy, she resorts to the Wopanaak’s spiritual ways in order to assist Caleb.
The relationship between Caleb and Bethia never becomes romantic in nature. They remain fast friends. Bethia is fortunate enough to marry a man who respects her independence and intelligence.
Much of the novel is uplifting, particularly many of the relationships between the English and the Wopanaaks; however, the fear, prejudice and greed eventually take over making the story a “dissonant and tragical lament” as Bethia states in the final words of the novel.
Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, a story of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. After reading Caleb’s Crossing, I think March will rise to the top of my reading list.