Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bookends: Geraldine Brooks's Caleb's Crossing

In a posting weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading Geraldine Brooks's Caleb's Crossing and would offer some reflections about the book when I had finished it.  Weeks have come, weeks have gone.  And I've been hesitant to write about this book, because I really like Brooks's work.  

But I found Caleb's Crossing less than enthralling, not anywhere near the equal of her previous novels--in particular, the Pulitzer Prize-winning March.  I very much wanted to like Caleb's Crossing.  It has all the elements of a novel I can't imagine disliking: a young Puritan woman in 17th-century Massachusetts develops a sympathetic relationship with a young native man who heads off to Harvard.  The novel is an imaginative recreation of the life and experiences of Harvard's first native-American graduate Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck.

I love history.  I adore good historical fiction.  I like novels that explore the interstices between conflicting cultures and alternative belief systems, as this novel does in juxtaposing colonial English Puritan culture with Wampanoag culture and beliefs.  

Caleb's Crossing is all of these and more--but therein lie its shortcomings, for me, at least.  It's a somewhat diffuse collection of several plotlines that often intersect, but which ultimately move along separate tracks, leaving the reader with the sense that s/he hasn't learned all s/he would like to learn about any single plotline.

There's first the proto-feminist narrative.  Bethia Mayfield, the novel's protagonist along with Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, is the daughter of a Puritan minister on Martha's Vineyard.  The novel's told through her eyes, and it does a powerful job of allowing us to understand what it must have been like to have been an intelligent woman desiring some autonomy in a time and place in which women were denied education and placed under absolute control of men, with the understanding that God had ordained this arrangement and to displace it was to rebel against God's will.

Bethia learns her Latin and Greek as she listens to her father instructing her doltish brother, who is slotted to be a minister despite his lack of intellectual acumen--since he has that man thing going on.  Bethia learns her Latin and Greek better than her brother does, as she scrubs pots and prepares meals and milks cows.  

And she continues to learn after her grandfather sells her into servitude in Boston, where she has access to similar vicarious lessons in the household of the tutor in which she serves as a housekeeper, and where her life story is told, for a brief period, against the backdrop of the lives of such well-known New England colonial women as Anne Bradstreet and Anne Hutchinson.  This is the plot about which I'd like to have heard much more, but which is ultimately left dangling through much of Bethia's life, since the novel unfolds from her girlhood up to the point of her impending death.

But as Bethia's life scrolls forth over the course of the novel, so does the plotline involving Caleb and Bethia's befriending and tutelage of him, a process of developing friendship in which she learns to speak his language and appreciate his culture and religious beliefs, while subjecting her own to scrutiny.  This is perhaps the most ambitious plotline in the book, since the subject of what native Americans did and thought at this period of history is a vast one, and one for which we lack substantial historical documentation.

Brooks's insights into the very different way in which English Puritans and native Americans of the northeast configured their cosmological worldviews is sharp and instructive.  Inevitably, it raises that tragic "what if" question that echoes through one historical account after another of the interchange of colonial Europeans and the native inhabitants of North America: what if the two cultures had been able to co-exist side by side in peace, with respect for one another?  What if the hegemonic culture of the Europeans, with its certainty of a divine imperative to conquer and subdue, had been muted and tamed by the outlook of the native peoples, which appeared to have a profound wisdom about living in chastened connection to the natural world--wisdom the hegemonic culture has lacked to its great peril?

Brooks does a fine job of exploring such questions through the story of Caleb.  The historical research on which she depends for this part of the novel's plot is wide and impeccable.

The problem is the vastness of the topic, and the difficulty of developing a meaty, coherent narrative about this set of issues alongside a narrative about the equally vexed question of women's place in 17th-century colonial Puritanism.  Either of these would have been a compelling focus for a novel.  Attempting to write about both side by side in a rather brief novel is daring, and I don't think that--despite her enormous talent--Brooks quite succeeds in fleshing out either narrative.

Still.  This is a wonderful read, and I highly recommend the book.  To my way of thinking, it's not quite the equal of March, or, for that matter, Year of Wonders or People of the Book.  But Geraldine Brooks's weakest work is among the best on the American literary scene right now, and we're lucky to be able to claim this Australian-born writer as an American one, one living now in the U.S. and writing about such "typical" American historical themes as the colonial Anglo-native encounter or the Civil War.

At a time in which highly placed yahoos are bent on reasserting American exceptionalism as the core doctrine by which we are ordered to define ourselves as loyal Americans, we desperately need informed, critical, morally astute insider-outsider perspectives like that of Geraldine Brooks.  

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