Hey Read This: A Fictional Account of a Real Person’s Fake Friend

Posted on June 13, 2011

It’s not, in fact, about Caleb at all!

Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk was a real person. He was the first Indigenous American to graduate from Harvard. His name is also referenced in the title (his crossing being from his native Martha’s Vineyard to Boston). However, Caleb’s Crossing is not about his life. Rather it’s an account of a fictional childhood friend, Bethia. Geraldine Brooks has created her own cottage industry of  historical fiction, and I have mixed feelings about this one.

Bethia does not live a very happy life. It almost seems as if everyone she touches dies in one form or another. The worst part? She blames herself. Why? Because she keeps getting involved with this Indian fellow (Caleb). The two meet in the wilds of Martha’s Vineyard where they teach each other the intricacies of each other’s cultures. For Bethia, a Calvinist and daughter of the local preacher, this means that she’s almost definitely going to hell. For Caleb,  it eventually means going to some of the finest prep schools that New England has to offer.

Due to circumstance, Bethia accompanies him to the mainland, working in the kitchen until he goes to Harvard.  What sort of racism will Caleb experience? Will Bethia ever find happiness? Will we learn a valuable lesson about friendship and family?

In many ways Brooks has improved. Her prose in this book is wonderful, especially in her descriptions of the natural world. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that she currently lives in Martha’s Vineyard. However, there is always something stilted about the way she writes. For example, I didn’t realize until the halfway point that I was reading a diary. Also, I was never entirely sure at what point in time the narrative was taking place.

The last 50 pages are her, on her death bed, looking back on the 5-6 years that followed Caleb’s graduation. An unnecessarily sappy and bulky end.

Ever-present is one of the eternal questions of historical fiction: How accurate should the English be? Brooks struck a great balance, rarely drawing attention to herself. Yes, the Indians are frequently referred to as ‘salvages’. Sometimes ‘thou’ is used. Word order is sometimes archaic. It only served to remind you that this took place in the past.

Yeah, I have my criticisms, but this struck me on a very deep level. Always in the back of Bethia’s mind is a choice. She can stay in the city, and have all the trappings of a modern, intellectual lifestyle. Or she could go back to the wilderness of her youth, an island paradise that represents freedom and a certain type of happiness.

My point is that there are flaws in the narrative. But in Caleb’s Crossing it doesn’t matter because Brooks’s writing is solid. She is definitely writing from the heart in this one, something we’ve been waiting a long time for her to do.

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