Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2015

Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's CrossingGeraldine Brooks has a new book coming out next month, so it was high time I read her last one, which has been sitting patiently on my shelves since I rushed to buy it four years ago in 2011.   And truth be told, I wanted something I knew I’d enjoy, after my last disconcerting choice.  Like Brooks’ other fiction (all of which I’ve read),  Caleb’s Crossing, is historical fiction featuring brave and fearless women stepping outside the expectations of their time.  It ought not to work, but it does…

There is a universality about the theme that drives Caleb’s Crossing, one that Australian readers will identify with despite the American setting.  Based on fragmentary evidence of the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard College, Brooks invents a life for Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wôpanâak tribe of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard) in the middle of the 17th century.  At this time the tribe is being dispossessed by the ‘purchase’ of their land in much the same way as Batman’s unscrupulous ‘purchase’ of the land that became Melbourne, and missionary activity is impacting on traditional ways in much the same way as happened here a century later in Australia.

And as in the fledgling settlements of Australia, there is little respect for indigenous language and culture on the island of Noepe, where a Calvinist minister has brought his family in order to escape the hardline Puritans on the mainland.  Bethia Mayfield, twelve years old when the novel begins, is a high-spirited girl who yearns for education which is denied her because it is not God’s plan for women to be educated beyond their role in life.  In the intimacy of the spartan family home, however, Bethia learns anyway, overhearing her dullard brother Makepeace’s lessons not only in classical languages but also in Wampanaontoaonk, the tribal language that Makepeace must master if he is to become a minister like his father.

This facility with Wampanaontoaonk leads in due course to a covert friendship with Cheeshahteaumauk, renamed Caleb by Bethia, as he renames her Storm Eyes.  It was, and remains, an innocent friendship, but it becomes a powerful bond, one which enables Bethia to transcend the patronising superiority of her own people and – despite her strong faith in a punitive God – to acknowledge much that is valuable in the indigenous culture.

The covert nature of their friendship, however, and Bethia’s habit of suppressing her rebellious thoughts in line with her gentle mother’s strictures, means that she is unable to challenge any of the assumptions that come to rule Caleb’s life.  With missionary zeal, Mayfield secures Caleb as a pupil after smallpox destroys his family and sends him eventually to what was to become Harvard.  His hair is cut, his clothing altered, his diet and habits modified in order that he might become an Englishman.  The goal is to make him indistinguishable, and to renounce his culture and beliefs.


Bethia, meanwhile, is expected to submit to a predetermined destiny.  Much good it seems to do to ask herself why she has no choice in the matter of her marriage, but fate intervenes when her father is shipwrecked and she goes to work as an indentured servant at Caleb’s college.  There again she is able to eavesdrop on lessons, and to acquire knowledge forbidden to women.  However, it is her knowledge of midwifery and herbalism – substitute forms of knowledge suggested by her mother – that saves the life of an Indian woman called Anne in a crisis that makes for compelling reading.  Brooks does not flinch from dealing with harsh realities in her fiction, and the hypocrisies of the Puritan community are laid bare as they whitewash events in ways that are only too familiar to Australian readers.  It is left to Caleb to exact justice…

The harshness of 17th century life comes vividly alive in this novel as Bethia confronts one bereavement after another, interpreting each one as a punishment from God for her sins.  Brooks uses the forbidden diary technique for Bethia to record both events and also her misgivings about the attitudes and behaviour of the adults around her.  This makes for satisfying reading: we like to read about feisty young women who defied their times to make a difference, and we especially enjoy the frisson of indignation when these women are obviously smarter than the ones who seek to suppress her.  The fact that this was rare for the times does not make it any less credible, especially not in the hands of a wordsmith like Geraldine Brooks.

What makes Brooks’ fiction rise above the many contemporary novels that reveal the presence of brave, intelligent women in past times, is her interest in humanist values.  In conjuring Caleb and Bethia, the author shines a light on the unenviable choices that indigenous people had to make:

He turned from me then and looked back across the dunes that hid the pond where we had first encountered each other.  Then, with easy grace, he folded his legs under him and sat down upon the sand, his back very straight, his eyes upon the horizon.  Without looking at me, he beckoned – the same brisk gesture he had always used when he wanted me to follow him.  So I settled myself on the sand beside him and stared out at the waves.  Often, in the past, when we had looked together at a common thing, I had learned that we saw it in quite different ways. He had taught me, long ago, how to see a school of fish moving through the water deep below the surface – how a certain change of light and dark could disclose them and reveal where one must throw out a net.  Because of him, the sea was no longer an opaque mystery, but a most useful lens.

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 tilted my head, puzzled.

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

‘But Caleb,’ I said.  ‘This land – I mean the mainland – they say it is a vast wilderness – there is room and to spare even when we come many thousands….’

He had scooped up another handful of sand and stared at each grain as it fell through his fingers. ‘You are like these.  Each is a trifling speck.  A hundred, many hundreds – what matter? Cast them into the air.  You cannot find them even when they land upon the ground.  But there are more grains than you can count. There is no end to them.  You will pour across this land, and we will be smothered. Your stone walls, your dead trees, the hooves of your strange beasts trampling the clam beds.  My uncle sees these things, here and now.  And in his trance, he sees that worse is coming. (p. 170)

For Caleb, the only respite for his people is to find favour with your God, or die. His uncle calls that coward’s talk, but Caleb thinks it is braver, sometimes, to bend.

Even in fiction as committed as this is to the belief that good will and intelligence can overcome injustice, there seems no solution to the fundamental problem of colonialism.  Dispossession and cultural annihilation were morally wrong, and the sin was committed by people who claimed to uphold Christian values.  And those who tried to straddle both worlds – as Bethia and Caleb tried to do – were fighting against a tide as inexorable as the one evoked on this beach by an author who never disappoints.

Highly recommended.

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Title: Caleb’s Crossing
Publisher: Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins, 2011
ISBN: 9780732289225
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings, $24.95


Fishpond: Caleb’s Crossing



  1. I enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing and especially the historical context and could easily have spent more time within each of the three sections, I found it quite a jolt when the new section started and we too were thrown into the next stage, I wanted to know more about the experiences of Joel and Caleb, probably another book could be written on their experiences alone.

    I have a fabulous image of a woodblock print in my review, created by the artist Annie Bisset, who works in a Japanese style (moku hanga). Their story apparently lost when the Harvard Indian School was torn down in the 1690’s, then rediscovered in the 1970’s and finally acknowledged in 1997 with a ceremony and plaque and in 2010 a new portrait unveiled.


    • You’ll have to help me out, Clare, I’ve searched your blog and *pout* I can’t find your review to see the woodcut!
      But I agree, it was a bit of a jolt jumping the decades like that, but I think sometimes it can be a good thing when a book leaves you wanting for more.


  2. Geraldine Brooks is one of my favourite authors – when I read your extract it reminds me why. Love, love, love this book!


    • And I can’t believe that I have read your past two reads. I usually haven’t read or even heard of many of the books you blog about.


      • LOL this is bound to happen when I tackle books that have been on my TBR for a while!


  3. Oh God! This sounds terrible to me! :-) I’d normally run a mile from a book like this. It looks like it’s packed with all the politically correct stereotypes: the wise, peaceful Native American; the intelligent, strong woman and the dull, Puritan baddies. Maybe I should read it.


  4. Thank you. I must read this one. I thought People of the Book was just about the best historical fiction I have read, with its ability to interpret details with meaning. Here in New England we see every day the stone fences the colonists built to control their cattle. The cattle are gone now and the fences are only decorative (and admired), but there is little recognition of the great wrongs which allowed them to be built.


    • Ah yes, I think you will really like it, Nancy:)


  5. I’ve read and reviewed this too, like Claire (whose review I’ll go read). I greatly enjoyed the book – I do think Brooks is a great historical story-teller. Like you, I found Bethia credible.


    • But I see you weren’t so sure that we got to know Caleb well enough because we only see him through Bethia’s eyes? An interesting thought, given that just this week I have seen a forceful demand that stories about indigenous people should be told only by indigenous people themselves… It’s a vexed issue here, but I don’t know if it’s as problematic in the US.


      • Oh yes, Lisa, I’ve discussed that issue on my blog a few times – particularly in a Monday Musings post in February last year on white writers writing on indigenous Australians. I thought a little wryly of that when I reread my Caleb’s crossing review this evening. I do think it’s something to be aware and wary of, and it requires sensitivity, but I’m not sure it’s valid on artistic, philosophical and political reasons to “ban” it. Where did you read/see this demand?


        • It keeps cropping up, which is why I didn’t make a note of it. It might have been on a Facebook page I follow, or maybe on Twitter because I follow indigenous issues there too. I don’t have an opinion about it myself, just a suspicion that it’s probably the misrepresentations and ignorance that causes resentment….so the more indigenous people tell their own stories, and the more the rest of us read them, the less likely it is that misrepresentations by non-indigenous authors will have any currency. Just speaking for myself, from the little I’ve read by indigenous authors, I now find I’m much more conscious of both casual and overt racism when I come across it in old texts, and I’m pretty sure that’s really what indigenous Australians want, for us to learn and to become sensitive to their perspectives.


          • Yes, I’m sure that’s the reason, and it’s completely valid and understandable, but as one non-indigenous writer said, if non-indig writers don’t write or incorporate indigenous characters then that’s continuing the dispossession ie by keeping them invisible. But as soon as non-indig writer incorporate an indig character they have to write that character just as any writers have to write and imagine all characters in their books, they have to have a story for that character, and there’s the challenge. This is beside the argument that writing is an act of the imagination and that from an artistic pov there should be no rules about who can write what. So, my attitude is that non-indig writers need to be aware that they come from the power culture, should tread carefully and lightly, and be prepared to be taken to task over their representation, but I don’t think they should never do it.


  6. I read this back when it came out and although I wasn’t wow’ed I did enjoy it. I did some background checking on Cheeshahteaumauk and was so surprised at what I found – (not that much but he is historical). I rather thought the Rev was more respectful of Indian culture than those who came a couple decades later – when no Natives would have likely been able to go to Harvard at all. (Not too different from the experience in Australia in some ways.)

    I’ve read all of Brooks’ books and my favorite is still her first – Year of Wonder. She’s nowhere near my favorite historical fiction writer but I am looking forward to the new one.


    • Yes, I like Year of Wonders best of all too. And you’re right about successive generations, I read in the blurb that the year Caleb’s Crossing was the same year that only the second-ever Indian had graduated from there. That’s quite shocking really because there must have been some who were capable of it, there always is in every population, so there must have been other factors which prevented it.


  7. I read (listened to) Caleb’s Crossing last year and made notes for a friend in year 12 but unfortunately I away from home and can’t access them. I struggled with this book as I did with Kate Grenville, too much 21st century sensibility. And I don’t see Brooks as Australian although I like your point about the connections between the treatment of indigenous peoples in Australia and America. With regards to indigenous protagonists I think it’s probably time for white authors to stand back and leave space for indigenous writers to do the imagining.


    • I so agree with your comment about 21st century sensibilities – and I also agree about Grenville. This is one of the reasons i enjoy classics – they have the sensibilities of their own times.


    • Well, Brooks is a bit like Peter Carey with a dual Australian-American identity. But I suspect that it’s Brooks’ Australian view of the world that made her alert to indigenous issues in the US…
      I’m open to being corrected about this, but I’ve asked a few US friends of mine about books by or even about American Indians, and got nowhere. So I suspect that this aspect of their history has been brushed under the carpet and replaced by the triumphant cowboy stories and Westerns


      • Oh there are some Native American writers, Lisa. Louise Erdrich is one, and possibly the best known. Sherman Alexie is another. One of the most famous books about Native Americans and the impact on them of American expansion into the west is Dee Brown’s Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. I’d be surprise if your American friends don’t know that as it was for decades seen as THE book about Native American displacement.

        As for Brooks, I’m one of the few who loved March. I also liked Year of Wonders. But my favourites really are her non fiction books, The nine parts of desire, and Foreign correspondence.

        I’d still call her Australian – like Carey. Though, interestingly, unlike Carey she hasn’t set any of her novels in Australia. She once said she had an idea for one. What’s this new one about? I haven’t read anything about it.


        • Oh yes, I’ve read a many of Erdrich’s novels. The novels set on the Turtle Mountain Reservation are the best, imo – that’s a real place in North Dakota – up by the Canadian border – near where Erdrich’s mother’s family came from. And I really enjoy Alexie – especially The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. And there’s Leslie Marmon Silko who wrote Ceremony which is now a classic – about natives in the New Mexico area. There are others – don’t remember now.

          Dee Brown, although his work is exceptional, is not Native although he does have intimate knowledge and he’s an historian. Bury My Heart … is terrific – a very careful an overview from the Native point of view –

          Vine Jr. Deloria and his so Philip, both natives and historians also write about Native history here. Philip’s book “Indians in Unexpected Places” asserts that there are natives and native American influence everywhere in US culture and daily life these days. I agree – it’s an ethnicity like almost any other. One difference is we still have reservations (not saying anything bad about that – or that they should go) due to seriously bad historical treatment.

          I also enjoy Native Australian lit – Kim Scott is probably my favorite but I’ve read several others.


          • Yes, I wasn’t suggesting that Dee Brown was native, though perhaps I didn’t make that clear. It was responding to Lisa’s query for books by or about Native Americans. I don’t know the Delorias.


          • More to add to my wishlist!


        • Delighted to be corrected and will add these to the wishlist:)
          I don’t anything about the new one yet except its name, The Secret Chord.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks Lisa…great review (I did skip the spoilers!) . I’ve got to get to this soon.


  9. […] Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, (update 3/6/16, see my review) […]


  10. […] Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, update 3/6/16, see my review […]


  11. […] (of course) with the renewed popularity of Year of Wonders, and ranged over People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing and her most recent The Secret Chord.  They talked about inspiration and research and other […]


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