Friday, July 27, 2012
Book Club: Caleb's Crossing
Critics and readers have lavished praise on Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing, a novel inspired by the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. However, I slogged through the novel and wasn't hooked until I was half finished. So I was curious to hear what the other members of our little group had to say.
Regrettably, two of our members couldn't participate, but I was surprised to learn that I wasn't alone in my difficulty to get into the story. Our member who loved the book had lived for a period in the Boston area so she enjoyed the depictions of Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge. She also appreciated learning more about the historical period and the lives of the colonists, which we all agreed with, and following Bethia from childhood to old age.
My difficulty with Caleb's Crossing was the point of view. It is narrated by Bethia Mayfield who meets and befriends Caleb when she is 12. The story is revealed as a sort of journal or memoir recorded by Bethia at different times of her life. Although described as Caleb's story, I found the novel to be Bethia's story with Caleb as a supporting character. Anything we learn about Caleb's crossing from his native culture to that of the colonists is told through Bethia. They share an interest in nature and education, and struggle to understand each other's society even as they embrace aspects of each culture. Yet Caleb's thoughts, difficulties, and actions are all filtered through Bethia's journal. Caleb's story is distanced by time (all action is reported after the fact) and point of view (Bethia's perceptions and recollections). I began the book in anticipation of reading Caleb's story. Instead, I got Bethia's struggle with the limitations of her society.
We all agreed we are glad we weren't living in Bethia's time and place. Bethia, like all the women of the colony, were expected to be silent and obedient. The men in their lives made all the decisions.
We did appreciate how Bethia's and Caleb's challenges were paralleled throughout the book -- the social limitations and prejudices faced by women and the indigenous peoples. We decided Caleb met the greatest challenge, since he was dealing with languages (English, Greek, Latin), a religion, and a culture strange to him while Bethia accepted her religious and social role even though she struggled against many of the restrictions.
We discussed how a closed, tight knit society shapes its members. Although Bethia escapes the confines of the colony to explore the island, she is still very much a product of her strict religion and culture. Of the two child-rearing norms, we much preferred the Wampanoag way of allowing children the freedom to run and play and learn by doing versus the strict and dour upbringing of the Puritans.
Using discussion questions provided by a reader's guide we talked about the Golden Mean, the sense of independence and potential that symbolizes the United States, and our own feelings and experiences with prejudice. One character presented the philosophical ideal of the middle point between extremes with the exception of the extremes of good and evil. Are good and evil fixed concepts, or are they defined by society? The United States was defined by physical frontiers that represented limitless potential for individuals to forge their own futures. Having bumped into the "left coast" our current frontiers appear to be more intellectual and require a more cooperative effort -- such as high tech startups seeking financial backers. Each of us has observed ethnic and racial prejudices and confronted our own preconceptions about "others."
Our book club members agreed that the time period and setting of Caleb's Crossing makes for an interesting read, and the struggles of two young people against the limitations placed on them is an interesting story.