There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry --
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
---- Emily Dickinson
Geraldine Brooks’ latest frigate bears us effortlessly into the 17th century past of Martha ’s Vineyard and Harvard College via research and imagination in her novel “Caleb’s Crossing.” Using the historical figure, Caleb Cheesahteauhmauk , Harvard’s first Native American graduate (class of 1665) as a springboard, Brooks invents early American profiles in courage.
For such traverses, like sea crossings at the time, come with much “oppress of Toll,” for the hero, Caleb, and narrator, Bethia Mayfield, as they attempt the precarious journeys of book learning and cross-cultural experiences.
Caleb, a Wampanoag, defies a powerful relative and learns the language, customs and beliefs of the English settlers’ by living among them, studying their books and attending Harvard College. Bethia, a minister’s daughter, surreptitiously wanders the island, sneaks books and silently learns Wampanaontoaonk speech, as well as rudimentary Latin, Greek and Hebrew, by listening to lessons given to men --lessons scandalous for a woman.
Both venture into forbidden realms and pay the price.
Young Bethia believes the price is her soul. In the opening pages, written when she is 15, living in Great Harbor, she tells the reader, “I killed my mother,” by which she means she believes her mother’s death is God’s retribution for her sins.
“I broke the commandments day following day. And I did it knowingly. Minister’s daughter: how could I say otherwise? Like Eve, I thirsted after forbidden knowledge and I ate forbidden fruit. For her, the apple, for me, the white hellebore – different plants, proferred from the same hand. . . .
We are taught early here to see Nature as a foe to be subdued. But I came by stages, to worship it. You could say for me, this island and her bounties became the first of my false gods, the original sin that begot so much idolatry.
She comes by her independent spirit and rebellion against rigid Puritan codes by example; family members present mixed messages. Her grandfather settles on the island community breaking off from the strict and punitive Massachusetts Bay Colony. In public, Bethia’s mother cultivates silent listening and picking up information. At home with her children she tells stories about foreign lands and strange ways. Bethia’s father’s teaches her only what’s appropriate for a girl—her catechism. When he discovers he has learned her brother’s lessons by listening in, he tells her “You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you. It is not seemly for a wife to know more than her husband.” Nevertheless, in his will he leaves her his Homer and Hebrew Bible. Bethia’s father also preaches to the natives, stands up to the xenophobe in his congregation and even takes in Caleb to live under his roof.
Bethia begins her tale on the eve of the day Caleb is to live with them, to join her brother Makepeace, and another Wampanoag Islanderunder the tutelage of her father. As she describes events that led to this moment, a moment she is partly and secretly responsible for, she says her first sin was disobedience. At 12 she went into the island wilderness alone where she met Caleb. He taught her the island’s secrets – such as how and where to berry and fish, while she, in turn, taught him reading, speaking and the beliefs of her religion. Entranced by his customs, she also dabbledin encounters with pagan ceremonies and intoxicating spiritual substances.
The death of her mother is followed by others that she will likewise attribute to divine punishment for transgressions and/or intervention by Satan.
Caleb also loses relatives. Spurred by those deaths as well as curiosity and intellectual talent, he is less conflicted in his ventures across cultures. He reveals to Bethia just before they both set off for Cambridge why he seeks knowledge of the powerful English god, and the settler’s books despite disapproval of his uncle, a powerful spiritual healer.
The second section Bethia writes at age 17 in Cambridge which according to Bethia is “an unlovely town.” It also stinks. “There was a reek of beasts from the Ox-Pasture and the Cow Common, a rich tidal stink of rot and decay, and a stench such as comes from people pressed in close habitation.”
Bethia accompanies her brother to Mr. Corlett’s School, a preparatory school for nearby Harvard College. Bethia works as an indentured servant in exchange for Makepeace’s fees, cleaning and waiting on the young scholars. Caleb and Joel also attend the school; their way is paid by English benefactors who wish to convert the Indians. It’s cold. The boys must drink only weak beer because the water is brackish and they bathe in an outside trough. Homemade soap is difficult to come by. The boys eat off wooden plates. Nevertheless, the boys find a way to distinguish between the well to do and the less so. The most privileged are the “pewter platers” so named because they have brought pewter tankards and trenchers, engraved with their initials, so they don’t have to eat off the worn wooden ones the common students use.
Following her years at the prep school, Bethia chooses to work in the Buttery at Harvard, where she can also listen in on lectures. Once again we get a very different view of elite education: students are not allowed to use the books in the library; only lecturers and tutors; young men crowd into a leaky, drafty ruin of a dormitory and many pay part of their board in goods – cows, shoes and firewood. The best building, made of bricks, was built with British funds from Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians to be used as the Indian College. (In time, Harvard’s president finds a way of subverting this original intent for use by the settlers.)
While Caleb negotiates prejudice and discrimination and proves his scholarly mettle, Bethia negotiates marriage offers discovering along the way that arguing and swearing an oath at her brother to whom she is subservient is an offense punishable by the courts.
The final section is written in Great Harbor when Bethia is 70. Her own passages almost complete, she feels compelled to take up her pen and finish Caleb’s story, calling him a hero for having the courage to challenge what others thought was unthinkable – crossing into another culture.
No such prohibitions held back author Brooks as she researched and wrote, though a few she consulted were guarded about her work. Some current tribal members, says Brooks, “have been frank in expressing reservations about an undertaking that fictionalizes the life of a beloved figure and sets down an imagined version of that life that may be misinterpreted as factual. She attempts in her afterword to address reservations by setting the historical record straight and “distinguishing scant fact from rampant invention.”
Much of the grace of her book comes from the way she blends specific facts and general research about the period with skillful invention. Like Bethia, we easily pick up and adapt to the language as we eavesdrop on unfamiliar words like “salvages (for savages), somewhen, sennights, tegs, and sonquem, and turns of phrase: “He brims like a stream in spate, gathering all the knowledge.” How smoothly we cross into this world Brooks creates. There are rich descriptions of place and references to historical figures of the time --- the poet Anne Bradstreet, the heretic Anne Hutchinson, Govs. Danforth and Winthrop as well as early Harvard figures like Chauncy. We never feel the story becomes an occasion for a history lesson; rather the narrative holds us in its present, unfolding events fluently, as it transports us to another world in another time.
By book’s end we may remind ourselves that even today many vilify those who worship different Gods and knowledge can come at great cost. But Brooks’ chariot confirms the cost of ignorance is greater.
Nathaniel Hawthorne said of nearby Boston of 1642 that it owed its state of development to the “sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing so much precisely because it imagined and hoped for so little.” Hester Prynne’s sin in “The Scarlet Letter” was adultery, but her transgression was that she thought, imagined and hoped outside her time. What we allow into our heads matters. But what we allow ourselves to imagine also matters. Both knowledge and imagination are luxuries struggling communities sometimes seem little able to afford. It may take two young people who embrace the pursuit of knowledge and the invention of the imagination for change to begin to happen.
I’m glad that Caleb Cheesahteauhmauk and Bethia Mayfield had the courage to cross cultures.
I’m also glad Geraldine Brooks indulged her inquiring and imaginative mind to give us such a satisfying armchair journey. For me the ride was not just frugal, but free; a friend passed along the book.