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Nina Sankovitch

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Searching for Self: Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Posted: 05/05/11 03:34 PM ET

I loved Geraldine Brooks' latest historical novel, Caleb's Crossing. Set in mid-seventeenth century New England (Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts), Brooks uses what is known of the true story of Native American Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, Harvard grad of 1665 and son of the leader of the Wampanoag tribe, to weave a fictional story about his friendship with settler Bethia Mayfield. What Bethia gave to Caleb and what Caleb gave to Bethia was more than just a sharing of cultures and an education into "the other." They gave each other the ability to explore and define for themselves, who they were.

Bethia and Caleb were partners in self-definition and exploration: together they sought out new ideas, places, and possibilities in a world not entirely welcoming to their explorations. They pushed hard against boundaries that others had erected to hold them firmly in place, Caleb as a Native American and Bethia as a woman. Realistically for the times, and sadly for our pair, the forces of superstition, stupidity, and close-mindedness pushed back even harder.

Drawing on the minimal historical sources available about both Caleb's life and what life was like for women in colonial New England, Brooks uses what is known with intelligence and imagination, creating a novel that bound me up into the hardscrabble life of settlers, exposed me to the wild beauty of Martha's Vineyard, and introduced me to Harvard College in a whole new light. But most importantly, it involved me in the ever-present human urge to understand who we are and why our lives matter.

Early in the book, Bethia asks:

"What are we really? Are our souls shaped, our fates written in full by God, before we draw our first breath? Do we make ourselves, by the choices we our selves make? Or are we clay merely, that is molded and pushed into the shape that our betters propose for us?"

In mid-seventeenth century America, the shape of the inner soul and the shape of the outward form are not the same thing: one is self-identity and the other is identity among the group. In defining themselves, it is not the fates that await Caleb and Bethia that matter but the paths they follow -- or cross - in pursuing (or fighting against) their ordained fates. However much the molds of tradition and prejudice push them into forms they must follow, both characters struggle to make their clay their own and it is that struggle which defines who they are.

It is that struggle that gives them soul, for us as readers and for them, as characters. Unfortunately, who they are when they are together - soul mates -- and who they must be for all the others around them are separate and distinct. And in the end, it is their souls that must offer what comfort can be found in the fates dictated to them, by circumstances of history and time.

Caleb's Crossing is a mesmerizing novel that left me feeling both sad and emboldened: sad for the costs paid by these two individuals -- and by individualists throughout history -- and emboldened to join them in the search for a self-defined life.

 
 
 

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