Saturday, December 22, 2012

Geraldine Brooks and CALEB'S CROSSING

I have recently read CALEB'S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks and have been deeply struck with the novel's profound message. This post will give first an introduction to Geraldine Brooks and then an overview of CALEB'S CROSSING. My next post will include my reflections on the message.


Geraldine Brooks takes the themes for her novels from hidden pieces of history, small historical tidbits about which we know very little. She uses these historical tidbits as the seeds for her novels, the setting and time period of which she researches thoroughly. Here is how this plays out in her four novels.
  1. YEAR OF WONDERS. This novel is about the arrival of the bubonic plague in the village of Eyam in 17th Century England. Eyam is extraordinary in that the people of the village voluntarily quarantine themselves as soon as the first sign of the plague is noticed among them; they choose not to flee to other towns with the hope of escape but also with the danger of spreading the dread illness. Brooks came upon the seed for this novel by chance during a walk through the English countryside. An intriguing sign pointing to PLAGUE VILLAGE brought her to the parish church of Saint Lawrence in Eyam, where she found a highly moving display of the village's voluntary quarantine during the plague. Starting with the few known facts about Eyam and the bubonic plague, Brooks builds her novel.
  2. MARCH. Here, Brooks takes the minor character of Mr. March from Louisa May Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN and writes her own novel around Mr. March's character, his story, and his experience as a United States Army chaplain in the Civil War. She does this through Mr. March's journal, where he tells a story of his war experience very different from the milder version he writes about to his wife, the beloved Marmee. Granted, Mr. March is not an historical figure, but he is a background character in a well-known 19th Century novel, and Brooks brings him to the foreground in her own.
  3. PEOPLE OF THE BOOK. This novel is about the extraordinary journey of a very special book, a centuries-old copy of the Jewish Haggadah with exquisite illustrations. Brooks' seed is the Sarajevo Haggadah, which came to Brooks' attention while she was in Sarajevo as a newspaper reporter during the Bosnian war. The Sarajevo Haggadah had been saved from destruction twice, during World War II and during the Bosnian war, each time by a Muslim scholar or librarian. Brooks uses historical research and her own imagination to follow this book back in time through the people through whose hands it has passed.
  4. CALEB'S CROSSING. The seed for this novel is the very little that is known about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wopanaak Native American Indian, who crossed cultures by becoming highly educated in the white educational system, graduating from Harvard College in 1665.

The novel is written in the first person, through the eyes of young Bethia Mayfield, whose father is a Christian missionary to and educator of the Wampanoag Native American Indians in Massachusetts. At age twelve, Bethia meets and develops a friendship with Caleb, the son of a Wampanoag chief and the nephew of a Wampanoag medicine man. The freindship between Bethia and Caleb allows each to begin entering the other's very different cultural landscape.

Caleb and Bethia continue their friendship as Caleb comes to study at the Mayfield home with Bethia's father, as Caleb enters Mr. Corlett's school in Cambridge to prepare for Harvard College with Bethia indentured to Mr. Corlett's service so that her brother Makepeace may also study there, and as Caleb goes on to Harvard College with Bethia obtaining a servant position at Harvard so that she can eavesdrop on the male-only lectures and further her own learning.

Caleb is preparing himself to be an educator of his people with the aim of helping the Wampanoag to bridge the gap between their culture and that of the white people, who are occupying more and more physical, psychological, and cultural space in Massachusetts.

My next post will focus on the message of CALEB'S CROSSING.

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