Whether she’s imagining the history of an ancient manuscript, as in People of the Book, or an English town determined to survive the plague in A Year of Wonders, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks is a master at bringing history’s little-known but fascinating stories to life.
For her fourth novel, Caleb’s Crossing, she found inspiration close to home: the tale of a Wampanoag boy who became a Harvard graduate. Brooks first learned about Caleb after seeing a notation on a map. “I’m thinking [this happened in] 1965, the Civil Rights era, and when I found out it was 1665, my imagination started spinning,” she says during a call to her home on Martha’s Vineyard, which she shares with her husband, writer Tony Horwitz, and their two sons.
"Whenever anyone says, your women are ahead of their time, I tell them, go and read more 17th-century women!”
Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
But that line on an old map of the island was one of very few records of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk’s existence. “To tell you the truth, I had a hesitation about creating him too much in full, seeing that we know so little, and I wanted to respect that historical distance with him,” Brooks says.
Instead, she approaches the story through another character: Bethia Mayfield, a minister’s daughter with a hungry mind who has picked up her learning a piece at a time while eavesdropping on the lessons of her older (and less intellectual) brother Makepeace. Bethia meets Caleb while gathering clams on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, near Gay Head. The daughter of a minister and the granddaughter of the island’s governor, both of whom pride themselves on their good relationships and just dealings with the native tribes, Bethia is less intimidated by an Indian boy her own age than the average colonial girl. When she speaks to him in his language, a friendship is born.
“I don’t remember who said this, but there’s a saying ‘learn another language and you gain another soul.’ I found that very true when I was studying Arabic,” Brooks says. “The way it’s structured and the way the root words have developed give you such insight into the thinking of people. So it was fun to sort of think about that at a time when the English were trying to put their very foreign stamp on the landscape and bring in foreign species and things like this, to think of the original names for things on the island.”
The understanding that Bethia and Caleb develop as a result of their friendship utterly changes their lives. Bethia is fascinated by the shaman of the tribe, Caleb’s uncle, whose rituals are considered the devil’s work by her father. Caleb is eager to adopt the ways of the colonists in order to level the playing field for his people.
Eventually Caleb comes to live with Bethia’s family so he can be tutored by her father; then the two (along with Makepeace and another Wampanoag boy, Joel) go to Cambridge. Their story is narrated by Bethia in a diary written at three different points in her life, though no actual journals by colonial women before 1750 exist.
“There were literate women, certainly,” Brooks says, “but they were just so damn busy! They were working from before sunup to after sundown, and you can imagine how fatiguing that all was. Also paper was very scarce, and the stress was on women reading the Bible but not necessarily writing, so it was a small population that would have found writing easy or pleasurable.”
Bethia, of course, is among that small number. Living in a time when being an intelligent woman carries few rewards, she struggles to match her desires with the role that society has set for her (even her name means “servant”). Though she is perhaps an unusual woman for her time, Bethia deals with her situation in a way that feels authentic to the period—as do the people around her, even those who love her. Her father’s pleasure in her learning, for example, “was of a fleeting kind—the reaction one might have if a cat were to walk about on its hind legs. You smile at the oddity but find the gait ungainly and not especially attractive,” Bethia muses.
Though Caleb is also seen as an oddity, his gender still gives him more privileges than Bethia, and though she’s proud of him she can’t help but resent this injustice, especially as her personal trials and tribulations mount.
“I think it’s a slightly arrogant view to imagine that it’s only in our lifetime that women have had the wit to see that their lot stank,” Brooks says, citing examples like the poet Anne Bradstreet as well as multiple court cases from the period that involve women speaking up for themselves “in ways that are very recognizable to second-wave old feminists like myself. So whenever anyone says, your women are ahead of their time, I tell them, go and read more 17th-century women!”
Readers will come away from Caleb’s Crossing with a new appreciation for this time in American history, and an interest in the Wampanoag people, who are going through something of a renaissance these days. Tiffany Smalley will be the first Wampanoag from the Gay Head Aquina Tribe since Caleb to graduate from Harvard later this month. And thanks to a MacArthur genius grant, Jessie Little Doe Baird has resurrected Wopanaak, the language of the Wampanoag, which had been lost for several generations. “When the tribe’s medicine man died the year before last, the language was heard on the cliffs at his graveside ceremony, probably for the first time in very many years,” Brooks says.
Perhaps we’ll get to hear that language in the film version of Caleb’s Crossing—though the novel hasn’t been optioned for film yet, Brooks is hard at work on a screenplay. “Previously I didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and I would just sling the option in the direction of [Tue Dec 10 18:05:40 2013] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. the West Coast and not think about it anymore, but this one I felt very strongly about and I had such a strong visual sense of it. It just so happened that a friend of mine, who actually knows how to do this, was between projects, so we’ve been collaborating on it. Even if nothing comes of it, I feel that I’ve learned an immense amount from the process of doing it.
Brooks is also finishing up her selections as editor of Best American Short Stories 2011 (she was working on the introduction just before our talk). “I’ve got them all scattered at my feet now and I’m looking down and remembering what the very specific pleasures of each [story] were. It was a wonderful exercise, because I started it with a high heart and finished it in a complete state of moral collapse!” Reading 120 stories (she chose about 20 for the collection) also introduced her to new favorites. “I’m absolutely embarrassed to say I didn’t know Steven Millhauser before this!”
In a novel that so carefully dissects the joy and pain of learning, it seems natural to ask Brooks what she thinks about knowledge and its boundaries. Not surprisingly for a trained journalist, she doesn’t believe there should be any.
“I’m a big supporter of Julian Assange, let’s just put that out there,” she says laughingly of the WikiLeaks founder. “It’s not for anybody to tell anyone what they’re entitled to know. Put the information out there and let the chips fall where they may.”
Caleb’s Crossing is another expertly wrought work of historical fiction from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. Set in the 1600s on Martha’s Vineyard, the novel is based on the true story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. The book’s narrator, Bethia Mayfield, is the daughter of a Calvinist preacher. Smart and curious, Bethia is thirsty for a good education—the kind that only boys get. When she meets a Wampanoag Indian named Caleb who shares her love of learning, the two strike up a secret friendship. Bethia’s father—eager to help the Wampanoag people—recognizes Caleb’s intellectual potential and steers him toward Harvard. The story of Caleb’s remarkable journey from the wilderness to the classroom is nothing less than epic thanks to Brooks’ skillful use of detail, dialogue and dramatic incident. Readers who enjoyed her best-selling novels Year of Wonders and March will relish this mesmerizing mix of fact and fiction.
Chad Harbach’s home run of a debut, The Art of Fielding, is a compelling tale about the culture of sports—and so much more. Baseball whiz Henry Skrimshander has hopes of making it to the big leagues. At Westish College, the school he attends in Michigan, he’s the star of the baseball team. But when Henry makes an error during a game, injuring his teammate, Owen, he begins having difficulties on the field, and his future suddenly looks less than bright. Meanwhile, Owen, who is also Henry’s roommate—and gay—engages in a risky affair, while Guert Affenlight, president of the college and a resigned bachelor, falls deeply in love. Harbach deftly fleshes out multiple storylines while focusing on Henry’s plight, as he struggles to get back in the game. This compassionate, beautifully conceived novel earned Harbach well-deserved critical acclaim. It’s a book that fans of literary fiction—and baseball—will savor.
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Ann Patchett, the best-selling author of the acclaimed Bel Canto and four other novels, returns with a darkly fascinating story about the nature of scientific inquiry. In State of Wonder, pharmaceutical researcher Marina Singh is tasked with finding out what happened to her co-worker, Anders Eckman, who died in the Amazon jungle after joining a research team. Contending with snakes, heat and mosquitoes, Marina connects with the field team, which is led by Annick Swenson, an ambitious gynecologist researching a tribe whose females have remarkable childbearing abilities. Annick was once Marina’s mentor, and encountering her brings back a past Marina is trying hard to escape. Giving readers access to the recondite world of drug research while exploring the impulses that motivate us all, Patchett has crafted an intriguing novel, filled with complex issues that will generate lively book club discussion.
The NBA-winning Australian-born, now New England author (People of the Book, 2008,Â etc.) moves ever deeper into the American past.
Her fourth novel's announced subject is the eponymous Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wampanoag Indian tribe that inhabits Massachusetts's Great Harbor (a part of Martha's Vineyard), and the first Native American who will graduate from Harvard College (in 1665). Even as a boy, Caleb is a paragon of sharp intelligence, proud bearing and manly charm, as we learn from the somewhat breathless testimony of Bethia Mayfield, who grows up in Great Harbor where her father, a compassionate and unprejudiced preacher, oversees friendly relations between white settlers and the placid Wampanoag. The story Bethia unfolds is a compelling one, focused primarily on her own experiences as an indentured servant to a schoolmaster who prepares promising students for Harvard; a tense relationship with her priggish, inflexible elder brother Makepeace; and her emotional bond of friendship with the occasionally distant and suspicious Caleb, who, in this novel's most serious misstep, isn't really the subject of his own story. Fascinating period details and a steadily expanding plot, which eventually encompasses King Philip's War, inevitable tensions between Puritan whites and upwardly mobile "salvages," as well as the compromises unavoidably ahead for Bethia, help to modulate a narrative voice that sometimes teeters too uncomfortably close to romantic clichÃ©. Both Bethia, whose womanhood precludes her right to seek formal education, and the stoical Caleb are very nearly too good to be true. However, Brooks' knowledgeable command of the energies and conflicts of the period, and particularly her descriptions of the reverence for learning that animates the little world of Harvard and attracts her characters' keenest longings, carries a persuasive and quite moving emotional charge.
While no masterpiece, this work nevertheless contributes in good measure to the current and very welcome revitalization of the historical novel.Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
In 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Here, Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks imagines that Caleb was befriended by Bethia Mayfield, whose minister father wants to convert the neighboring Wampanoag and makes educating Caleb one of his goals. Bethia, herself desperate for book learning, ends up as an indentured servant in Cambridge, watching Caleb bridge two cultures. What Brooks does best; I'm anticipating. With a 15-city tour.[Page 84]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
In 1965, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck of Martha's Vineyard graduated from Harvard, whose 1650 charter describes its mission as "the education of the English and Indian youth of this country." That much is fact. That Caleb befriended Bethia Mayfield, the free-spirited daughter of the island's preacher, is of course fiction--but it's luscious fiction in the capable hands of Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks (March). As one might expect from Brooks, Bethia is a keen and rebellious lass, indignant that she should be kept from book learning when her slower brother gets the benefit of an education. She first encounters Caleb in the woods, learning his language and ways while stoutly arguing her Christian beliefs; later, Bethia's zealous father brings Caleb into the household to convert him. And so begins Caleb's crossing, first from Native to English Colonial culture and then from the island to Cambridge, where he studies at a preparatory school before entering Harvard. Bethia ends up at the school, too--but as an indentured servant. VERDICT Writing in Bethia's voice, Brooks offers a lyric and elevated narrative that effectively replicates the language of the era; she takes on the obvious issues of white arrogance, cultural difference, and the debased role of women without settling into jeremiad. The result is sweet and aching. Highly recommended. [Prepub Alert, 11/15/10.]--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal[Page 106]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Brooks (for March) delivers a splendid historical inspired by Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Brooks brings the 1660s to life with evocative period detail, intriguing characters, and a compelling story narrated by Bethia Mayfield, the outspoken daughter of a Calvinist preacher. While exploring the island now known as Martha's Vineyard, Bethia meets Caleb, a Wampanoag native to the island, and they become close, clandestine friends. After Caleb loses most of his family to smallpox, he begins to study under the tutelage of Bethia's father. Since Bethia isn't allowed to pursue education herself, she eavesdrops on Caleb's and her own brother's lessons. Caleb is a gifted scholar who eventually travels, along with Bethia's brother, to Cambridge to continue his education. Bethia tags along and her descriptions of 17th-century Cambridge and Harvard are as entertaining as they are enlightening (Harvard was founded by Puritans to educate the "English and Indian youth of this country," for instance). With Harvard expected to graduate a second Martha's Vineyard Wampanoag Indian this year, almost three and a half centuries after Caleb, the novel's publication is particularly timely. (May)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC