Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Message I See in CALEB'S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks


My previous post gave an introduction to Geraldine Brooks and an overview of CALEB'S CROSSING. This post will focus on the message of CALEB'S CROSSING, or at least what I see as the novel's message.

CALEB'S CROSSING is about a Wampanoag Native American Indian in 17th Century Massachusetts who educates himself in the white educational system, graduating from Harvard College in 1665. Caleb's goal is to serve as an educator for his people, helping the Wampanoag to bridge the gap between their culture and that of the white people, who are coming to dominate more and more of the physical, psychological, and cultural space in Massachusetts.

I find that CALEB'S CROSSING has a profound message about life purpose. The message is that, in following what we feel called to as our life purpose, we may be fulfilling a very different purpose. We may be doing something deeper or parallel of which we are not consciously aware, all while going about what we think we are doing.

Here is how this plays out in CALEB'S CROSSING.

Caleb understands himself to be called to serve as an educator for the Wampanoag people, to help them live in a world that is increasingly dominated by white people. To accomplish this, Caleb educates himself in the white educational system. He studies first in the Mayfield home near his own, where he is instructed by Mr. Mayfield, a missionary to and educator of the Wampanoag. After this, he goes to Cambridge and enters the school of Mr. Corlett to prepare for admission to Harvard College. Finally, he spends four years at Harvard, earning his bachelor degree in 1665. All of this involves rigorous intellectual work in a culture and an educational system very different from his own.

After the many years of intellectual discipline and rigor, Caleb falls ill of consumption (the lack of exercise and the unhealthful city air have ruined Caleb's lungs), and he dies within a year of his graduation. He never fulfills his calling to be an educator of his people. All his preparation has gone for nought; Caleb's life purpose remains unfulfilled.

Or does it? I would say that there is another purpose that Caleb prepares for and eventually fulfills -- but it is very different from what Caleb has envisioned. Along with Caleb, another Wampanoag also undertakes the same rigorous course of study with the same life purpose -- Joel, the son of a chief who has converted to Christianity. All the while that Caleb and Joel are preparing themselves as educators, something else is also happening -- their souls are being knit together. They are the first among their people to take on this type of intellectual pursuit in the white educational system, and they become fast friends. At Harvard, their classmates initially exclude them from social activities, so they rely even more upon each other for friendship. The creation of deep soul bonds with Joel is the real preparation for Caleb's actual life purpose.

Right at the time of graduation, Joel returns for a visit home and dies at the hands of those among his people who oppose what they see as his desertion to the white people. Soon after, Caleb falls ill. In his sleep, Caleb is agitated, sensing that Joel's soul cannot find his way home in the spirit world. Joel's Christian upbringing has not allowed Joel the grounding in the Wampanoag ways of navigating in the world of spirit, a grounding that Caleb has received.

Bethia Mayfield, Caleb's friend from age twelve, is also living in Cambridge but returns home to seek out Caleb's fearsome uncle, a Wampanoag medicine man, to beg for a cure for Caleb, whose consumption the white doctors have been unable to heal. The uncle senses what is troubling Caleb about Joel's soul and sends Bethia back with a song for Caleb to sing.

The song turns out to be a death song, and Caleb understands immediately. He must help Joel. He sings the song, reaching out to Joel's soul, calling Joel home -- and he dies. Bethia, witnessing this, is certain that the strength of Caleb's song has reached Joel and that Joel has been able to hear and follow Caleb home. Bethia's only question is -- which home? The heaven of the Christian god or the after-life lands of the Pagan gods?

(I would say that Bethia's background prevents her from seeing beyond this dichotomy. As I see it, if there is an after-life, it doesn't exist in one location for Christians and another for Pagans. It's the same after-life, the same spirit world. The different descriptions are each culture's or religion's way of symbolizing what we in our earthly life haven't yet experienced.)

Caleb fulfilled his life purpose. He felt a call to serve his people as a cross-cultural educator. In his faithfulness of consciously preparing himself for this purpose through years of rigorous intellectual study, he was unconsciously preparing himself for his real purpose through his deep soul bonds with Joel. When Caleb's real purpose became apparent, he did not hesitate to embrace it -- singing out as he died to call Joel home.

Of course, there are people who feel a life calling, prepare for it, and go on to live it out. Sometimes, the life purpose is lived out very nearly as envisioned. Other times, the life purpose evolves in ways that weren't envisioned but that do fit with the original vision. However, I love the idea of being open to the possibility that one may prepare for and fulfill a life purpose that is different from, deeper than, parallel to the life purpose to which one believes oneself called. It suggests that life is so much more than we think it is.

Thank you, Geraldine Brooks, for CALEB'S CROSSING and its profound message about life calling and life purpose.

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