by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2011; ISBN 978-0-670-02104-8)
Geraldine Brooks is a master of historical fiction of the kind that zeroes in on someone or something you’ve never heard of and proceeds to make you care about him/her/it. I have already blogged about People of the Book and Year of Wonders. They were marvelous, but no more so than this novel based on the little that is known about Caleb Cheeshateaumauk, a Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) Indian who graduated from Harvard College in 1665, the first Native American to do so. Very little is known about him; Brooks summarizes it in two pages of an Afterword. What disposed him, the son of a chief, to learn English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, to study the Bible in its original form, to leave his home on Martha’s Vineyard and travel to Cambridge (not a nice place at the time) to attend a sort of prep school and then Harvard? Brooks’ fictional Bethia Mayfield narrates her own and Caleb’s stories and thus imagines some answers to these questions.
Bethia is insatiably curious and smart. More than anything, she wants the education her brother is given but cannot appreciate. She is a born feminist living in a culture that scorns women’s intellect. As a girl of fourteen and fifteen, she wanders away from her home on the island for a breath of privacy and meets Caleb, surprising him with her rudimentary knowledge of his language, which she has overheard her father trying to teach her slow-witted brother. They become secret friends. Eventually, Caleb decides that he can best help his people by learning the ways of the English, and he comes to live with Bethia’s family (her father is the preacher/missionary in their small community). Later, when Caleb and her brother Makepeace travel to Cambridge to continue their studies, Bethia accompanies them, as an indentured scullery maid for the preparatory school where they are enrolled. When they move to Harvard, so does she, lured by the possibility of listening in on the lectures she is forbidden to attend openly. The narrative then jumps to 1715, with Bethia now an old woman. She takes up the tale where she left off and tells how Caleb and his Wampanoag classmate Joel Iacoomis (also a real person) died young, soon after successfully completing their bachelor’s degrees at Harvard, and how she came to return to Martha’s Vineyard to live out her days.
Bethia is a wonderful character who believes in the fundamentalist teachings she was brought up with but cannot quite bring herself to accept her lot as a woman in that society without pushing the boundaries as much as possible. She and Caleb discuss theology and culture, and each has an effect on the other’s beliefs. After he shares the Wampanoag creation story with her, she writes, “Of course, I thought it all outlandish. But as I rode home that afternoon, it came to me that our story of a burning bush and a parted sea might also seem fabulous, to one not raised up knowing it was true.” (p. 35) Bethia even finds herself drawn to aspects of Caleb’s beliefs, and her guilt over this causes her to blame herself for her mother’s death, one of several tragedies in her life. Despite the title, I felt that the novel was more about Bethia than it was about Caleb, because the reader is treated to her inner thoughts and feelings, whereas we must guess as to his, much as Bethia herself must; Caleb does not openly share his emotions.
Brooks/Bethia has great sympathy for the Native characters in the book and Native Americans. She describes the hypocrisy of the English Christians who would convert the “salvages” but never fully accept them, who preached the gospel to them while stealing from and slaughtering them. The character of Tequamuck, Caleb’s uncle and the shaman of the tribe, predicts a future that the reader knows to be the truth: “his people reduced, no longer hunters but hunted. . . the dead stacked up like cordwood, and long lines of people. . . driven off from their familiar places.” He asks Bethia, “How should I worship your God, no matter how powerful, when I know what he will allow to befall us? Who would follow such a cruel god?” Who, indeed?
This is an absolutely wonderful book! I couldn’t put it down.