Vineyard history comes to life in “Caleb’s Crossing”


“Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks, the Penguin Group, Viking Press, 2011, 306 pp., $26.95.

With exquisite crafting, lavish historic detailing coupled with a spare and unsentimental accounting, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks envelops the readers of “Caleb’s Crossing,” in life on Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1600s.

The characters and events to shine forth as the dynamic between the Island’s ever-encroaching Puritan settlers and the 3,000 Native Americans deal with tensions defined by religious, racial, and territorial concerns.

Bethia Mayfield, the minister’s devout but independent-thinking young daughter, forced by Colonial society to deny her intellect and curiosity, narrates the tale. She chronicles the clandestine bond of friendship that develops with Caleb (Cheeshahteamauk), the gifted son of a Wampanoag chieftain.

The compelling story unfolds in Bethia’s voice as Caleb from the West Chop area, and she, living in the settlement of Great Harbor, share their contrasting customs, beliefs, language, and routine skills with each other. From childhood on, their lives intersect despite Puritan repression and the escalating division between their peoples.

Bethia recounts lessons in nature learned by observing Caleb: “For him, it seemed every plant had some use, as food or medicine, as dye or weaving matter. He would snap the heads off sumac and douse then in water to make a refreshing drink, or reach up into trees to gather rich nutmeats — white and creamy.”

After distinguishing himself, Caleb, first educated by Bethia’s father, then at a prep school in Cambridge, becomes aware of what the future holds for Native Americans, and eventually acquiesces — crosses over — into Colonial society.

“He lifted a fistful of sand and let it fall through his fingers. ‘You ask why I eat with you, learn your prayers. Why I study to hate all that I once loved. Put your ear to the sand. You will hear my reason.’

I looked puzzled.

‘Can you not hear? Boots, boots, and more boots. The shore groans under the weight, and yet more to come. They crush the life from us.'”

Caleb eventually became the first Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard College, joined by his friend, Joel Iacoomis, a Wampanoag classmate.

But beyond the true story of Caleb, Ms. Brook’s meticulously researched historic fiction illuminates the staunch beliefs, rigid mindset, and the minutiae of harsh routine of the period — preparing meals, housekeeping, dealing with crops, livestock, and prayers.

“The tasks stretch out from the gray slough before dawn to the guttered taper of the night.”

At the same time, Bethia extols the beauty of the Island in a way that creates a mystical quality: “I love the fogs that wreathe us all in milky veils, and the winds that moan and keen in the chimney-piece at night. Even when the wrack line is crusted with salty ice and the ways through the woods crunch under my clogs, I drink the cold air in the low blue gleam that sparkles on the snow. Every inlet and outcrop of this place, I love.”

But Bethia, indentured to a family in Cambridge, is forced to leave as her brother Makepeace, Caleb, and Joel have relocated there to study under rigorous conditions.

“Cambridge is an unlovely town,” Bethia writes in her journal, describing the rough roads, the stench of the streets, and the muck and mire brought on by foul weather.

The characters deal with travail and loss as a matter of course. In Bethia’s chronicle such things are presented without foreshadowing or imposed emotion.

Without intruding on the sympathies evoked by the characters or drama of events, the obvious depth of research done by Ms. Brooks saturates and enriches the tale. In addition to archival information at Harvard and writings by members of the Mayhew family, she interviewed various Wampanoags, read the journals and writings of Colonial missionary John Cotton, and documents from English benefactors who funded the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity in the 17th century. All the narrative and dialogue reproduces the style and rhythm of the speech of the period — formal with no conjunctives.

Ms. Brooks is an acknowledged master. She has authored three historical fictions: “March,” the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner set during the first year of the Civil War; “People of the Book,” inspired by the Sarajevo Haggadah, covering five centuries of history; and “Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague,” based on the true story of a 1666 plague in England.

“Caleb’s Crossing” joins these works as a beautiful story elegantly told, one that is likely to leave its readers both informed and affected.