Status of women true focus of book

"Crossing" tells the story of the first American Indian to graduate Harvard through the eyes of a 17th-century girl.

September 4, 2011 

One of the most unusual graduates in the Harvard class of 1665 was a Wampanoag Indian by the name of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. A native of a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, later called Martha's Vineyard, he was the first American Indian to graduate from that college. Not until this year did another of his tribe earn that cherished degree.

This is a true story, but it is also true that very little more than some basic facts are known about Caleb. One document, written in Latin, is all that remains to attest to his accomplishment. The novelist, then, is obliged to create Caleb's story out of her exhaustive research into the period, what few facts there are, and her imagination. I can think of no writer better suited to this than the author of "People of the Book," the Pulitzer Prize-winning Geraldine Brooks.

The narrator of this gracefully written novel is the fictional Bethia Mayfield. She is 15 years old but bears the responsibility of caring for her 18-month-old sister, having lost her mother to "childbed fever"; suffered the loss of her twin brother, Zuriel, in a farm accident; and a baby boy "who had not tarried here long enough to name him." She has one surviving brother, Makepeace, who is a poor scholar and jealous of Bethia's quickness of mind. She is given no formal schooling because her father believes "women are not made like men. You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you." Her father is the minister in Great Harbor (later named Edgartown) and her only teacher, a man who believes an educated woman cannot make a good wife.

She saw Caleb for the first time when she was 12. She was clamming (a despised chore, made necessary only when meat supplies ran low) when she came upon a group of Indians playing a kind of football. "They were very tall, lean in muscle, taut at the waist and broad in the chest, their long black hair flying." She tries to escape them, but Caleb finds her and is astonished when she speaks to him in his native tongue. Her father had been learning Wampanoag to better communicate with "the savages" that he is trying to "bring to Christ."

Some respond to the Christian message, and one of them is Caleb. Her father is impressed by the quickness with which the boy learns English, sees him as a future leader of his tribe, and invites the boy to live with them. Nothing sexual has passed between them, but Bethia clearly feels that it might. Still, they become fast friends, not lovers, teaching each other their languages and culture. And finally, Caleb gets his chance.

We know he succeeded, for otherwise there would have been no book, and while Bethia keeps us informed as to his progress, it is really her story. When the time comes for her brother to go off the island to continue his education, she is indentured (literally, sold) for four years to provide some of the funds he will need. She has no choice in the matter; she is a girl, and has to do what she is told.

Later, an arrangement is made for her marriage. She does not love this man, nor does she love the other young man who pursues her, but the pressure to do what she is told is almost overwhelming. She suffers some unexpected losses, is repeatedly denied any chance for an education, but she is a survivor. I enjoyed her story, and it is clear that Brooks was more concerned about the low status of women in early America than she was about the Indians.

She also does one curious thing. Bethia is still working off her indenture when suddenly the book flashes forward to 1715. She is now in her 70s, the stresses of life are all behind her, and she tells the rest of her story in flashbacks. She answers our questions, but it takes away some of the drama when we know these events were over years before and she has clearly survived them.

I hate to be picky about one of our best novelists. "People of the Book" blended mystery, religion and romance in a story I couldn't put down. "March" imagined the experiences had by the father of "Little Women" after he went off to fight in the Civil War, and "Year of Wonders" recreated the life of a small French village battling the plague years. I wasn't as caught up in Caleb's story as I was with her first three novels, but even when she's not at her best, she's still better than the rest of the field. It will be fascinating to see what she takes on next.

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