Crimson and clover
Reimagining follows the first Native American Harvard grad and his ties to a Martha’s Vineyard minister’s daughter, starved for education
Harvard College plays a critical role in Geraldine Brooks’s absorbing new 17th-century novel, “Caleb’s Crossing.’’ But you won’t recognize the great institution, now so massive and massively endowed. Set in the “unlovely town’’ of Cambridge, as Brooks’s narrator, Bethia Mayfield, puts it, the Harvard of “Caleb’s Crossing’’ is a sagging, moldy, if handsome three-story structure with a bell tower. The three dozen or so rigorously educated male scholars speak primarily in Latin, and the library houses only some 1,000 books.
Studying in this modest building in 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Caleb, raised in the Wampanoag tribe of Martha’s Vineyard, goes on to mingle with — and intellectually prevail over — the sons of the Colonial elite. He crosses to the mainland; he crosses over barriers of contempt toward what many settlers consider a savage people; and he crosses back and forth between the tribal beliefs of his youth and the Christian and academic teachings of his adopted culture.
In “Caleb’s Crossing,’’ Brooks takes the few known facts about the real Caleb, and builds them into a beautifully realized and thoroughly readable tale. She does what she has done in her earlier novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “March,’’ which is to merge her research with her intuitive sense of the daily lives of both real and fictional individuals. She performs a dazzling act of imagination, embellishing a moment in history with fine details of the characters’ thinking and images of the rough natural world of the Vineyard. This is intimate historical fiction, observing even the most acute sufferings and smallest heroic gestures in the context of major events.
The novel is actually the story of two young people thirsting for knowledge, one of whom does not cross into Harvard. Bethia, the narrator, is Brooks’s fictional creation, the daughter of a Martha’s Vineyard minister committed to converting the Wampanoag to Calvinism. (The Mayfields are loosely modeled on the Mayhews, a prominent Vineyard family.) Because she is female, Bethia is forbidden to study, not just at Harvard but even on her own. She manages to eavesdrop, however, on her brother Makepeace’s lessons while she cooks, or works on the loom. “Women are not made like men,’’ her doting father tells her after she is caught. “You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you.’’
Bethia’s curiosity also drives her into a secret friendship with Caleb, whom she meets regularly by the beaches. Brooks invents a lovely bond between them, as they teach each other their native languages and help each other understand and accept their respective cultural quirks. “[I]t was his light temper and his easy laugh that drew me close to him, over time,’’ Bethia writes, “until I forgot he was a half-naked, sassafras-scented heathen anointed with raccoon grease. He was, quite simply, my dearest friend.’’
Caleb, son of a Wampanoag chief, a boy who seems destined to be a tribal pawaaw (healer), is amused by Bethia’s modesty and her religious beliefs. He calls her Storm Eyes. And she is moved by his profound respect for the island and for the animals whose lives he takes for his own sustenance. At points, as they loll on the beach, the novel feels as though it could veer into a kind of bodice-ripper, with the scantily clad Caleb and the once-stoic Bethia rolling together in the tide. But Brooks is much too sensible and respectful of her characters for that. Generally, her tone is appealingly cool and compassionate.
Bethia is a noble daughter, but she is a starving intellectual who refuses to submit, even when she is treated like chattel. She is the parallel hero of “Caleb’s Crossing,’’ as her undying devotion to enlightenment takes her as far as Caleb outside of her own social limitations. She bears witness to Caleb’s dramatic journey, and we are the witnesses to hers. Effortlessly, Brooks keeps these two characters intertwined as they end up in the world of Harvard at the same time, he as a student and she as a servant.
The third hero in “Caleb’s Crossing’’ is Martha’s Vineyard, “where we dwell with our faces to the sea and our backs to the wilderness,’’ as Bethia says. The island, with its thick fog and unforgiving wind, remains the characters’ homeland, even when they are away in Cambridge. In some ways, the novel is a love letter to the Vineyard, which is where the Australia-born Brooks currently lives. “I made this island mine, mile by mile,’’ Bethia writes, “from the soft, oozing clay of the rainbow cliffs to the rough chill of the granite boulders that rise abruptly in the fields, thwarting the plough, shading the sheep.’’ She is taught “to see Nature as a foe to be subdued,’’ but Bethia refuses. No matter how educated she becomes, no matter how many losses tear at her heart, she continues to worship the bluffs, inlets, and salty mists of her Vineyard haven.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.