The meetings between cultures are rarely smooth, easy and gentle. They are more often defined by sharp clashes and rocky shoals, filled with tide pools and unknown currents. The path of those who attempt to make the crossing is often filled with struggle and danger, both clearly present and hidden. So too is the life of those who live along these boundaries, due either to circumstances or natural inclination.
Such is the story of both Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, and Bethia Mayfield, the preternaturally bright and intellectually curious daughter of a minister on Martha's Vineyard, as designed and told by Geraldine Brooks in her novel Caleb's Crossing. Bethia, who tells Caleb, her name means servant, yearns for the education granted unquestionably to her brother and chafes at the limitations of a society where "servant" is a more fitting description of a woman's role than is the word "scholar". Caleb leaves the life he has known and tries to understand these new people and their view of life, crossing into Puritan culture and life.
It is Bethia's voice we hear in this story as she recounts how she an Caleb meet, and the story told is as much her story, how she manages to find her own way through the rocky paths of adolescence to a stable and happy place in society, as it is Caleb's. Caleb is her friend and his journey is the framework around which Bethia's story is told. It is a warm, gripping, and touching story and I will not recount it here.
Geraldine Brooks manages to create in Bethia a touching, character who is both familiar to modern readers and yet not at all modern, a character firmly planted in the 17th century and yet not, a character to whom we could begin to understand, but who definitely looks at the world in a way that we do not. The conclusions Bethia draws from episodes in the book are not the conclusions I would draw, which is as it should be. It is a sensitive portrait, well told and very engaging. At times perhaps the author is a bit forceful in driving her points home, but then again, there was very little subtlety in Puritan Belief and thought so I found it forgivable.
I truly enjoyed this book. One could say I devoured it, hungrily burying myself in the story. But not only was it a good read, parts of it have stuck to my own rough edges, and keep coming back and haunting me thoughts. I've not read any of Geraldine Brooks' other novels. Perhaps I should.