Book review: Caleb's Crossing

Caleb's CrossingBy Geraldine Brooks4th Estate, 320pp, £16.99

It is 1660. Bethia Mayfield is part of a community that has broken away from John Winthrop's colony of Puritan settlers in America. Her father is the village "liberal" who doesn't believe in stealing from or slaughtering the local Indians, but he faces tensions from both sides. Some of the Wampanoag are distrustful, and another influential family, the Aldens, would like to get rid of the indigenous population altogether.

Bethia's concerns are at first domestic ones: her beloved mother has died in childbirth, leaving Bethia in charge of the baby and the household. Her father is burdened with farm work, with missionary work and with preparing his son, Makepeace, for matriculation on the mainland, at Harvard. Bethia knows she is likely destined for an arranged marriage to a good-natured local fellow, Noah Merry. Given her upbringing, she is not entirely in touch with her feelings, but she does recognise that she is quite fond of an Indian boy she meets and talks to from time to time, Cheeshahteaumauck, the nephew of the most powerful (and suspicious) local pawaaw, or priest-healer. Bethia thinks it may be this friendship, and the Wampanoag rituals she has allowed herself to witness out of curiosity, that has caused God to punish her by killing her mother.

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In Caleb's Crossing, Brooks returns to the time period and some of the issues she explored in Year of Wonders, a novel that takes place in a 17th-century English town ravaged by the plague, told in the first person by a young servant girl. The setting of this new novel is, however, not an earthly hell but a version of paradise, fertile and beautiful. For most of the narrative, Bethia's conflicts are internal: how can she teach herself to exist within the narrow confines of the lives women in her world are expected to lead?

The important difference between this novel and Year of Wonders is that here Brooks gives her narrator not only a voice, but writing tools. What makes this novel utterly believable is Brooks's mastery of the language Bethia employs in her confessional diary. Her archaic usages ("misliked," "alas") bring the reader much more fully into her consciousness and her world than the plainer and less well-researched style more common to popular historical novels, where the characters seem to be much like ourselves, although wearing weirder clothes. A serious historical novel such as Caleb's Crossing always proposes that consciousness is at least in part a function of language, and that as language changes, so does thought, understanding, identity. This novel's triumph is that Bethia succeeds as a convincing woman of her time, and also in communicating across centuries of change in circumstance, custom and language. She tells a story that is suspenseful and involving. It is also a story that is tragically recognisable and deeply sad.

We know that the Wampanoag did not retain control of their lands. When Cheeshahteaumauck elects to change his name to Caleb and study English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew with Bethia's father, it is in some ways a natural choice for him. Like his uncle, he is interested in power, and he understands that the "Coatmen" have powers the Wampanoag do not. But he is a young man, strong and athletic, and doesn't foresee the costs of those powers. He only knows that he excels: he's a much more apt student than Bethia's brother, and once he gets to university he takes to his lessons more readily than other students. More important, he allows his different forms of learning to coexist; he observes the monotheistic doctrines of the whites, but thinks he can live outside them, cognisant of the culture that shaped him.

It comes as no surprise that Brooks, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her second novel, March, is sublimely proficient at both the details of language and the dynamics of storytelling. Based on the life of Bronson Alcott and, like Caleb's Crossing, a first-person narrative, March is a persuasive and moving depiction of both the Civil War and a complicated marriage. Her third novel, People of the Book, is a tour de force that dramatises turning points in the history of an illuminated parchment manuscript as they are manifested in tiny bits of evidence - a trace of salt, a wine stain. Brooks is as adventurous a novelist as she once was a journalist, reporting from the Balkans in the 1990s and writing about the lives of Muslim women in Nine Parts of Desire. Her investigative reporting has evolved into exhaustive and meticulous literary research, but her journalistic sense of story remains vibrant. I can only suppose that years of listening to people talk, of hearing them tell their stories, have given her the same flair Bethia has for eavesdropping on what's going on around her and learning much more than her companions realise.

Brooks's intense focus on Bethia doesn't require that the reader contemplate the larger implications of her narrator's experience. By the novel's end, Bethia has attained a measure of freedom and wisdom, the Indian genocide is still in the future and the Puritans' sense of themselves as the chosen people is still essentially a local inconvenience. Bethia and her family live at the easternmost edge of a continent as yet unconquered. But Brooks, in her luminous and suggestive way, doesn't seem to mind if the reader infers that all the issues Bethia wonders about have been present in our nation since the very beginning, that they remain today and that an honest depiction of them is a good thing.

Caleb's Crossing could not be more enlightening and involving. Beautifully written from beginning to end, it reconfirms Geraldine Brooks's reputation as one of our most supple and insightful novelists.

New York Times