Colonial culture clash full of echoes of today
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Historical fiction is tricky. On one hand, it allows us to participate in another place or time through the actions of protagonists in their settings.
On the other, however, the genre tends to flirt with anachronism, placing modern-day characters in circumstances that tell us more about contemporary sensibilities then the tenor of the time they portray.
In her fourth novel, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks succeeds in balancing historical atmosphere and superb detail but suffers romantic pitfalls in developing plot and character.
The inspiration for the novel came from a letter written by Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wampanoag tribe and the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.
The novel's journey, however, belongs to the narrator, Bethia Mayfield, who is 12 when the novel opens in 1660. She is the daughter of a Calvinist minister who has resettled his family on the island settlement of Great Harbor, now known as Martha's Vineyard.
Bethia is wildly intelligent; she eavesdrops on her brother's school lessons and picks up some Latin, Hebrew, rhetoric and logic and quickly surpasses him. She also learns the native tongue of the island but her gender forces her to keep her knowledge a secret.
Her father criticizes her severely:
"Bethia, why do you strive so hard to quit the place in which God has set you? Your path is not your brother's, it cannot be. Women are not made like man."
Ms. Brooks richly describes the specific hardships of the time, which filled the life of this rebellious female with drudgery and dreariness. Relishing in the details of life in early America, she examines the internal dynamics of a household and contrasts it to lush paradise of a fertile island surrounded by a teeming sea, presenting a world that is difficult and inviting.
Luckily, Bethia can explore the island independently. On one adventure she meets Caleb, the son of the local tribal chief, who becomes a kindred spirit. She can speak to him in his language; he acquires the nuances and complexities of hers.
They talk of God, of what they fear, of what their parents want them to believe, and of how they see the world. Their exchange of cultures is one of the highlights of the novel perhaps because we sense how precious their time together will be.
The novelist gives Bethia a voice that is stilted slightly but authentic enough for us to believe that she's transliterating speech from another time. Lyrical and poetic, the language is consistent and offers a sense of lives lived in the past.
Despite our Thanksgiving memories, the Colonial transformation of New England was a dangerous, sometimes violent affair, and the tensions that arose between Puritan settlers and the Wampanoag could be irreducible.
She and Caleb travel to Cambridge where he prepares to enter Harvard and she becomes an indentured servant.
Ms. Brooks uses Bethia and Caleb as a means of exploring the world of 17th century Massachusetts. Unfortunately, these two engaging characters can become spectators witnessing their environments rather than participating within it.
Both lack the motivation that would move a novel forward naturally; although their desires may differ from our own, a character's emotional state and actions should still influence the outcome of a novel.
Ultimately, "Caleb's Crossing" fails to examine the mentality of the 17th century, falling back into the convention of the present to examine the exercise of power.
Women are treated unfairly or cruelly, even when historical evidence suggests that they could exercise a fair amount of autonomy within certain realms of Colonial culture. Religion is equally oppressive, even though Puritan theology was supposed to be liberating.
Finally, Ms. Brooks' decision to concentrate on Bethia's story rather than Caleb's works to the detriment of the novel. Caleb and the other Native American characters are well-worn cliches, whom Ms. Brooks portrays as noble savages with an intrinsic connection to Mother Earth that conveys a certitude and timelessness to their folkways rather than individuals.
As the embodiment of change, Caleb moves from an indigenous culture to the center of Western learning in the Colonial world.
For all her understanding and introspection into the culture of the Wampanoag, Ms. Brooks doesn't put this knowledge to use, which frankly feels like a failure of the historical imagination.
First Published July 3, 2011 12:00 am