Wow! If Run by Ann Patchett was the best pick for (somewhat) contemporary Boston (1990s), then Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks was the clear winner for historical Massachusetts, covering Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or which have something to teach us about the history, geography, or people of the state. Right now we are finishing up Massachusetts, and this book met all of those goals.

Within the first few pages, it was clear that this was going to be a good one.

Those hot, salt-scoured afternoons when the shore curved away in its long glistening arc toward the distant bluffs. The leaf-dappled, loamy mornings in the cool bottoms, where I picked the sky-colored berries and felt each one burst, sweet and juicy, in my mouth. I made this island mine, mile by mile, from the soft, oozing clay of the rainbow cliffs to the rough chill of the granite boulders that rise abruptly in the fields, thwarting the plough, shading the sheep. 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.

It’s set in the 1600s, not too long after the English began settling on Martha’s Vineyard and shortly after the founding of Harvard College in 1636. The Caleb of the title is the first Native American graduate of Harvard, but the story is actually told from the perspective of a young woman, thereby allowing us to glimpse the perspective of two populations whose voices were not heard at that time.

If you’ve read my other posts, you may remember that I took issue with Rae Carson’s Walk On Earth a Stranger for the anachronistic views of the main characters about Native Americans and slavery. I have to admit here that Bethia’s opinions about Native Americans are just as unusual for her time–but for some reason, they don’t seem as jarring or as out-of-place.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that she is just about the only person with these views, and with the fact that she doesn’t spout off about her opinions and the injustice of the prevailing view. She just quietly observes and sympathizes and occasionally notes that, in many ways, Caleb still has more rights than she does. It also may have to do with the more realistic portrayal of Puritanical justice in Caleb’s Crossing. Lee never really faces any consequences for her against-the-grain opinions, whereas Bethia is punished and made to publicly repent after taking the Lord’s name in vain–which was not just frowned upon but actually illegal in that time and place. 

Bethia mostly keeps her mouth shut, and is able to learn things she might not have otherwise learned–news and gossip, but also the Wampanoag language, along with Latin, Hebrew, and Greek.

She was like a butterfly, full of color and vibrancy when she chose to open her wings, yet hardly visible when she closed them. Her modesty was like a cloak that she put on, and so adorned, in meekness and discretion, it seemed she passed almost hidden from people, so that betimes they would speak in front of her as if she were not there.

She purposely sets herself to work in the buttery at Harvard, where she can overhear the College president’s daily lessons with the students.

This love of, and facility for, languages resonated with me, and I delighted in her occasional translation discussions.

“Wampanoag. It means Easterners.” … “Easterners,” indeed. As if they speak of east or west as we do. Nothing is so plain and ordinary in that tongue. Wop, related to their word for white, carries a sense of the first milky light that brightens the horizon before the sun appears. The ending sound refers to animate beings. So, their name for themselves, properly rendered in English, is People of the First Light.

But Bethia also has a love of the land–as do I–and I particularly enjoyed when those passions overlapped.

… person of the first light, perched at the very farthest edge of the new world, first witness to each dawn of the turning globe. I count it no strange thing that one may, in a single day, observe a sunrise out of the sea and a sunset back into it, though newcomers are quick to remark how uncommon it is.

And this observation about common names of plants:

I learned to shape my mouth to the words–sasumuneash for cranberry, tunockuquas for frog. So many things grew and lived here that were strange to us, because they had not been in England. We named the things of this place in reference to things that were not of this place–cat briar for the thickets of vine whose thorns were narrow and claw-like; lambskill for the low-growing laurel that had proved poisonous to some of our hard-got tegs. But there had been no cats or lambs here until we brought them. So when he named a plant or a creature, I felt that I heard the true name of the thing for the first time.

This plurality of naming probably resonates for the author, Geraldine Brooks, who was raised in Australia–another British colony whose native peoples were displaced, along with their languages; Australian flora and fauna also have a mix of British and Aboriginal common names.

Brooks apparently has dual citizenship these days, and actually lives on Martha’s Vineyard, which does much to explain how she manages to evoke the island so wonderfully. There are some beautiful descriptions throughout the book, including this one when Bethia has come to Cambridge and is feeling homesick:

But the island—its briny air, its ever changing light—these things yet exist. There, the clean and glassy breakers still beat upon the sands, the clay cliffs still flare russet and purple each sunset. All of this goes on, but I am not there to rejoice in it. It is a loss I feel on my very skin. Here, I scan the flat fens and the dung-strewn pastures in vain for the beauty that once was my daily portion. In that way, my condition is like a little death; this place, a little purgatory.

There are wonderful bits about the history of Harvard itself, as well as Cambridge and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the settlement of Martha’s Vineyard, and relations between the white colonists and the native peoples. Brooks includes historical figures as well, including several female ones–Anne Bradstreet and the “Indian Mayde” (Brooks says in her Afterward that there was a reference to an “Indian Mayde” who attended Daniel Weld’s school in Roxbury along with Caleb. Note that WBUR has an interview with Brooks, as well as an excerpt from Brooks’ Afterward which is well worth a listen to hear her talk a bit about finding Bethia’s voice.

Overall, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks was a wonderful addition to our list for Massachusetts, and a wonderful way to wrap up this state!

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