Friday, 2 September 2011

Caleb's Crossing or Bethia's Borders?

Our lively discussion about Geraldine Brooks' latest novel was sparked by Sue quoting a controversial review by Jocelyn McLurg in USA Today, whose irreverent review claimed 'it reads like a puritanical mash-up of Avatar meets Dances With Wolves'.

The story is based loosely on the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, who in 1665 became the first Native American Harvard graduate, and is set in what is now called Martha's vineyard, (Wampanoag: Noepe) an island off the coast of Massachusetts, USA where Geraldine Brooks lives. The Minerva group found the book to be very readable and the story engaging.

We talked about her use of the female protagonist Bethia, and whether she spoke with a 21st century voice, or indeed Geraldine's voice. Other members argued that there was evidence of outspoken women at the time, and her feminist attitude while unusual was not unbelievable. She was the most fleshed out character, although her fate took a number of twists and turns, sometimes it seemed only to serve Brooks' narrative needs - eg in being indentured to the school, and then falling for Samuel.
We talked about the romance in the book, and whether Bethia and Caleb had a romantic attraction. Most agreed that the romance was a let down, and we didn't feel a strong emotional engagement with the characters. Caleb especially was seen as a shadowy character, particularly as the book progressed, so that we don't really get to know him.

We agreed that her capturing the sense of place was very successful, that she knew that environment well, and had as usual researched her background and characters well. Her understanding of the Indian dwelling Bethia went to and 'sank into the furs' was very believable, and we found out based on Geraldine's own experience. She certainly is inspired by places she lives to delve into the background to find the stories.

We talked of her use of language in using words from Wiltshire dialect, like 'shakedown' ... Sue commented that she was not entirely consistent, and thought her use of the term 'going forward' had a modern jargon association.

We touched on religion and it's constraints and the references to Satan and evil in relation to the pawaw's activities and seeming command of the forces of nature. However Bethia's father had his own reputation for magic healing when it seemed he could save the Indian sonquen Nahnoso from illness, a reputation shortlived when the sonquen succumbed to smallpox.

We explored the use of the title Caleb's Crossing...what was being crossed and what the significance was. Some thought Geraldine had a more straightforward motivation in simply telling a story that intrigued her. Others felt that she was examining the notion of crossing cultures, and the cost and difficulty of such a crossing, both by Caleb..who paid for it in his death, and by Bethia and her family who had a tough life in coming to a new country. Geraldine's own experience in having adopted a son from Ethiopia had also sensitized her to the needs to adapt and learn language and ways of a new culture. She refers to the importance of retaining the association with her son's original culture. In Caleb's case he really had to choose to abandon much of his Wampanoag life in order to be accepted in white society.

A stimulating discussion. A number of the group had heard Brooks interviewed and admired and enjoyed her tales about how she finds and researches the stories she writes...almost more engaging than her actual novel??


  1. Good on you Kate. Yes it was a good discussion. I liked the idea (probably from Sue T?) that history got in the way of the story as far as any budding romance between Caleb and Bethia was concerned. I thought the story lost out of that conflict. I also enjoyed our suggestion that Geraldine wrote the wrong book about Caleb, who (for all we know) may not have been the excellent scholar portrayed, but rather may have been shepherded through academically in order to placate the altruistic funders of the Indian College.

  2. Thanks Kate for good summary of our wide-ranging discussion. I also wondered what Geraldine was saying about the success/value of crossing cultures the way Caleb and Joel did? Bethia asks near the end whether it would have been better if she'd left Caleb alone. Ignoring the fact that there is an arrogant assumption behind this that if she'd not started sharing cultures with him he never would have tried to "cross", it seems to me that this is the critical issue to think about?


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