Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
The paths of life run parallel until one day, a turn – left or right, by guidance or chance – leads us down another road. Do we cross over never to return or simply open a new window without closing the door on the old?
18 Bookers met at the orange-clad home of Cherry Fugitt all decked out in the spirit of Halloween and ‘Horns’ to discuss this month’s selection, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, reviewed by Jane Freer. The group was unanimous in their appreciation of this book and of Jane’s efforts. Bravo Jane for your insights and your willingness to step up to the plate.
Sadly, we recently lost a member and friend, Madelyn Chubb. The twinkle in her eye, the smile on her face, and her laugh-out-loud sense of humor are indelible images that will be recalled with the mere mention of her name. In her honor we should probably re-read the one-thousand-page novel, Truman…she would smile…MN would groan - again! Also, Janet Erwin’s 102 year-old mother passed away, but on a happier note, they welcomed a new grandchild to the brood. Bookers’ family extends our condolences and congratulations.
I would like to thank Beverly Dossett for succumbing to “slight pressure” to take notes in my absence. I would love to have been at the meeting, but decided to have skin removed from my ‘oh-so-meaty’ chest and transplanted behind my ear…no puns please! Seriously, I missed you all and trust that I’m on the mend and will be back to my duties very soon.
Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning author of March, which we read in June of 2007, has once again taken a scrap of history and used it as the scaffolding for her latest historical fiction, Caleb’s Crossing masterly utilizing the antiquated language of the time and reflecting her extensive research and attention to detail. “She created a believable story of ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might have been,’ setting real-life Caleb and a group of fictional characters to document his ‘crossing’ from pagan life to Christian culture.” Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wopanaak tribe of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard), became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. His story is told through the voice of Bethia Mayfield, the young daughter of a liberal Puritan minister, whose family had broken away from John Winthrop’s colony in Massachusetts. The book is a battle of the Indians and the Pilgrims on one level, a story of love, loyalty, and friendship on another, and an intellectual, spiritual and cultural crossing that asks the question:
“If I (Bethia) had turned away from that boy…and left him in peace with his gods and spirits, would it have been better? Would he yet live, an old man now, patriarch of a family, a leader of his tribe?”
A summary of Jane’s review:
Bethia’s family came into possession of Martha’s Vineyard through “fair dealings” with Native Americans. Her grandfather was the magistrate and her father, the village liberal who didn’t believe in stealing from or slaughtering the local Indians, was the minister of the island. When Bethia’s beloved mother dies in childbirth, she assumes her role taking care of the baby and the household. But she is “born of a restless spirit and curious mind and slips the bounds of her rigid society to explore the island’s glistening beaches and observe its native inhabitants” while her father tended the farm, fulfilled his missionary duties, and prepared his son, Makepeace, for study on the mainland. At twelve Bethia meets Caleb, “the young son of a chieftain and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other.” Reverend Mayfield’s mission is to convert the natives to Calvinism, and when Caleb loses his family to smallpox, his education becomes the Reverend’s pet project. The fruits of his labor are rewarded as Caleb, his fellow tribesman Joel, and Makepeace enter Cambridge in preparation for studies at Harvard. After the death of her father, Bethia has little choice in order to insure her brother’s education than to accept the position of the housekeeper in the headmaster’s home, also giving her the opportunity to eavesdrop on classes further enhancing her own “secret” education. Eventually she marries the headmaster’s son and gains a freedom and wisdom not attained by most women of her time.
The most poignant passages in the book are at the end. Caleb is dying. Bethia is at his bedside as he slips in and out of consciousness…sometimes murmuring scripture mixed with Latin aphorisms and epigrams…but at night he would “ramble in Wompaontoaonk,” his native tongue “addressing himself to Tequamuck,” his uncle, the most powerful local pawaaw of the tribe… “the only one who has not renounced Satan and his familiars.” Bethia’s ardent prayers and the most powerful medicines available had done nothing to help. “If there is anything to be done, perhaps it yet lies in the hands of this other.” She seeks out Tequamuck and is met with hostility. “He has been marked for death from the day he commenced to walk with you…I have heard (his) cries...I have met his spirit…he is pulled between two worlds.” But in the end, he gave her what she asked for…a way to bring peace to her dying friend. “I brought my lips to his ear and whispered…the last of the words that Tequamuck had given me…his lips parted…Caleb’s voice gained strength…he sang out his death song and died like a hero going home…although I do not know which home welcomed him.” Some might think she made a “pact with the devil” but perhaps she merely allowed herself to cross over to calm the troubled soul of her friend.
“There is so much in this novel that I don’t feel as if I reviewed it fully. The death of Caleb and the crossings of his tribe’s beliefs and Bethia’s Christian beliefs is, to me, the whole story. We have so much to learn from each other and to honor those beliefs. I hope we can discuss this part of the story. I seldom cry at the end of a book but did cry at Caleb’s death. I will be thinking of these characters for a long time to come.” Jane Freer
And discuss we did. The group appreciated how the author placed us in the story with her vivid descriptions and engaging characters bringing to light the role of women during these times. A reference was made to Sam Gwynne’s new novel, Empire of the Summer Moon, which took place in Texas after the Civil War. Flash forward two hundred years from the time of Caleb’s Crossing and the social injustice was equally discriminatory…the world without access to the worldwide web. The title provided some discussion, as at first glance, it might have merely been the name of a town, but the significance of it became clear as we recognized the many meanings of the crossing. We wondered about whether “our way” was indeed the right way or the only way? Indian rituals and medicinal uses were similar to those discussed in Clan of the Cave Bear…maybe all we need is a bottle of vinegar, some fresh herbs, and a box of baking soda to clean and cure everything. The favorite part for some members was the ending, for others, the non-union of Bethia and Caleb was a disappointment…when you have a couple who makes each other’s “blood boil,” how could you be satisfied without a happy together ending. We mourned Joel’s death alongside Caleb and could understand how his words were frozen in his grief. It was stated that men live longer if they are married – women live longer if they have friends around them. Everyone agreed Bookers fulfills our need for friendships…and what happens in Bookers…stays in Bookers!
On the business side
Drum roll…the results of our Bookers’ voting are as follows – the top five are:
The Paris Wife, The Cookbook Collector, Unbroken, A Fierce Radiance, The Art of Fielding
Thanks to everyone who took the time to vote. We appreciate your support and participation.
COLOR CODING SYSTEM:
WHITE: LIGHT READ
PINK: MODERATELY CHALLENGING
November 8th: Georgia Bottoms by Mark Childress
Recommended by Mary Jacob & guest, Pam Parks
Home of Lorene O’Neil, co-hosted by JoDee Neathery
Reviewers: Mary Jacob & Pam Parks
December 13th: Holiday Party & Meeting
A Week in Winter by Marcia Willett
Recommended by Bernie Crudden, MN & JoDee
Home of Jean Alexander, co-hosted by Bernie Crudden
Reviewer: Janet Noblitt
Bonnie Magee, Food Czar
January 10th: The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
Note change: Home of Bonnie Magee, co-hosted by Patty Evans
Reviewer: Beverly Dossett
February 14th: The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
Home of Daryl Daniels, co-hosted by Janet Noblitt
Reviewer: Patty Evans
March 13th: Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
Recommended by Beverly Dossett, Lee Durso, Alison Crawford,
Jane Freer, Melanie Prebis, Jean McSpadden
Home of Lee Durso, co-hosted by Kay Robinson
Reviewer: Lee Durso
April 10th: Book to be announced
Home of Donna Walter, co-hosted by Charlotte Pechacek
Reviewers: MN & JoDee
May 8th: 5th Annual Wine & Cheese Evening Meeting, 6:00 PM
Home of Melanie Prebis, co-hosted by Linsey Garwacki
Book (or not) to be determined
June 12th: Bonus meeting to be announced.
As you can see we have only assigned two of the books that were voted on. MN and I are searching for a book the quality of Little Bee or Room for our review…we’ll keep you posted on the progress. We will discuss the other “voter’s favorites” at the November meeting where I will be going solo as MN’s mother-in-law is having hip replacement surgery on our meeting date…we really haven’t broken up!
One last note on this month’s selection, wouldn’t Bethia be proud and a bit envious to know the first Wopanaak from Martha’s Vineyard since Caleb, Tiffany Smalley, is receiving a degree from Harvard this year. Also, I have a hard copy of Jane’s review for anyone who would like to have a copy.