SnS Book Club: Caleb’s Crossing

Welcome to the June edition of the SnS Bookclub, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.

How did you find this month’s book, Caleb’s Crossing?


Have you read any of Geraldine Brooks’ books before?

I am a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks’ previous books. I loved her brilliant “Year of Wonders”, “People of the Book” and the excellent non-fiction, “Nine Parts of Desire”. I have not read March, which uses the classic “Little Women” as inspiration, although I have heard it is excellent.

She is an author I enjoy for many reasons. Firstly, I find that her books are always full of interesting historical detail and observations. I also find it refreshing that she never dumbs things down or appeals to the lowest common denominator. Geraldine Brooks treats her audience with respect and is never gratuitous.

Her books always make me think and challenge me intellectually – not in a textbook, academic way but because she often deals with significant issues and powerful topics including racism, sexism, religion, exploitation, morality, love, sacrifice and hardship.

For these reasons I recommend reading her books in book clubs too – there is always plenty to discuss and workshop.

They are also the sort of books you can give as gifts – they appeal to a broad audience and are always of a high standard. The perfect gift for a mother in law for example.

The Plot      *Spoiler Alert*

In Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks essentially takes the few known facts about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and creates a work of her imagination. I loved how she put this:

“What follows is the history, insofar as it is documented: the slender scaffolding on which I have rested my imaginative edifice.”

Caleb was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. The story centres on the friendship between Caleb, the son of a Wampanoag chieftain and Bethia, the bright and determined daughter of a Calvinist Minister of Religion. The story begins with their meeting at a young age and their subsequent friendship over decades, culminating in Bethia nursing Caleb to his very tragic and premature death.

I though the story moved quickly at times and slowly at others. The first two of the three distinct sections of the book covered periods in great detail. The third, told/written from Bethia’s “old crone” stage, takes us back in time to tell what happened after her courtship with Samuel, where part 2 ended.

I thought the “summary” of the third section was effective in some regards but also seemed a bit at odds with the detail of the first two sections. The fact that Bethia was writing the story allowed this and gave the author some leeway to choose what to dwell on and what to gloss over. There were numerous times in which she chose not to give the details (such as the shipwreck/murder of Joel and her labour with her child). I thought this was interesting and only possible given Bethia was the author. In a narrative, details can’t be glossed over quite so easily. What did you make of this?

In terms of readability, even though I found the beginning interesting, it took me until well into the second half to become more involved and I think this only occurred for me when Caleb, Samuel and Noah were competing for Bethia’s affections during the time she spent at Corlett’s.

I also wondered (did you?) whether the friendship between Caleb and Bethia would ever progress. It was clear that he held her in high regard and that he cared for and loved her a great deal. There is only the slightest acknowledgment of this from Bethia though:

“He climbed up behind me on Speckle, and we rode by a slow way, through the woods, so as to be unobserved. When Speckle foundered slightly on an uneven tussock, his hands grasped my waist for a moment and I was conscious that however much I might feel him to be my brother, it was not so in fact. In the town, we would need to be even more wary of our manners one unto the other.”

and the acknowledgment by them both, of Anne’s situation, had it been reversed. Caleb:

“If she were an English maid, raped by an Indian, that man would have been swinging from the Common’s gallows long since.”

Such were the lines drawn between the races and perhaps the times, that despite their closeness, they never spoke of their attraction and love for each other. This was sad, as I thought they would make a great pair. I was pleased but a little surprised that Samuel proved to be such a compatible long term partner for Bethia. I thought it was a bit ominous for a while there. What did you make of their courtship? I loved that terrible crack she made about his nose. I thought they were doomed after that!

The Characters

I admired Caleb so much. What promise and potential he showed but how sad and frustrating that he should be constantly subjected to prejudice and hardship. He did things the hard way, yet always retained a quiet and commanding dignity and an impressive intellectual and emotional intelligence.

I felt for him as he tried to negotiate his cultural and familial ties and his desire to learn English culture and receive a formal, English eduction although there is no doubt he had learned a great deal before he went to came in to contact with the English.

I was somewhat frustrated that his restraint and the times meant that he could not speak honestly and in a forthright manner however, this seemed to be the order of the day.

As much as Caleb’s Crossing is a story about Caleb and the tension he faces between his familial and cultural roots and his desire to learn and become educated in the “English”‘ way, it is also the story of Bethia.

In fact, I think because Bethia was an entirely fictional character, the author flexed her creative muscles to make her an interesting,intelligent and formidable character. The account of Bethia’s struggle to be her own person and to have a say in her destiny was a compelling one and a tale that made me angry, frustrated and shocked at the injustice of her situation.

It can be difficult for an educated Western woman in Australia (like me) to fully appreciate the restriction, suffocation that our sisters in early colonies experienced. Having said that, there are plenty of women in this day and age who are still lacking basic freedoms too. I have loved learning my whole life and studied at University for six years to earn two degrees. I can’t imagine how different my life would look if I was denied my education.

What did you think of Bethia?

And Makepeace, her brother? I thought Makepeace was an insipid, menacing character although I think his character was drawn this way so Bethia and he were not close and also to highlight the differences between he and Caleb. Caleb was his exact opposite in every sense. In the end, it was Caleb who was more of a brother in a modern sense that Makepeace with all his scheming, secretive ways. I really found him appalling and even when he agreed to help Anne escape, I half expected him to renege.

Which character in the book did you like, loathe or feel indifferent towards?

My Favourite Line

There were many. It really is such a beautifully written book.

I also loved the word ‘bever” which I guessed was a type of meat they ate and also the concept of “at board” which I deduced meant their evening meal, as “dinner” was lunch. I envisaged a huge wooden board on which all manner of food was presented, like a ye olde version of antipasto. What did you think?

A couple of my favourite lines were as follows.

In the first section, when learning that Caleb was coming to stay with them:

“When father first announced that the young adept called himself Caleb, and wondered where the son of Nahnoso might have happened upon a Hebraic name, I let out a snort, and made as if I had choked upon a piece of bread.” p.94

Here is another one: (p.223)

“How would it be, to have a husband who strove to elicit one’s ideas, with whom one could, over months and years of companionship, hone and refine them? Such a life would be something, indeed. I thought of Caleb’s reference, on the beach – it seemed an age since – to Prometheus, stealing fire. So I might steal learning, with such a husband. I thought of the alternative: arranging my face into an expression of interest while my spouse expounded on the conditions of pasture or the virtues of an undershot millstone, the struggle to access a book – any book – and the loneliness of longing to explore its weighty ideas and having no one with whom to share them.”

In a Nutshell

I thought this was a well written, interesting book but I did not find it nearly as compelling as Geraldine Brooks’ earlier novels. I perservered and was ultimately rewarded but it was not a book I had difficulty putting down for the most part.

I found the subject matter interesting but perhaps it may be more so to an American audience. It would be fascinating to read the equivalent account of the first indigenous person to study at an Australian University.

What did you think of it? Did you enjoy it? Would you recommend it? Thoughts? Feelings? Questions?