Historical fiction is my favourite genre to read, but it’s also a tricky one. I can pick up, as I did a few weeks ago, a novel set in a time and place that absolutely fascinate me, and I can be so bored with the execution of the story that I return the novel to the library unfinished (I won’t name that book and author). Then I can come across a novel about a time and place I’ve never had a great interest in — for example, Colonial America — and in the hands of the right writer, it can be absolutely riveting.
Geraldine Brooks is the right writer. Everything I’ve read by her before has been compelling: she is just so competent at not only bringing the past to life, but people it with fascinating characters. Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, which was earlier than you might think — indeed, earlier than you might even think there was a Harvard. More broadly, it’s a story of New England life in the 1660s and 1670s, a rough-hewn and challenging world in which the colonists were embarking on the massive task of building a society almost from scratch — which included an insitution of higher learning almost as soon as they were settled in the new land. Most of all, it’s the story of people figuring out how this new society of theirs was going to co-exist with the society that already existed, that of the Native Americans. While some of the paternalism and prejudice that came to characterize English/native relationships was there from the beginning — all the English characters take it for granted that the natives have to be converted to Christianity — it’s also fascinating to realize that the complete domination of one culture by the other was not as inevitable as it later came to seem; there was, for a time, at least the possibility of peaceful if not quite equal co-existence. An “Indian College” at Harvard was founded almost as soon as the school itself was, and two young Native American men from what’s now known as Martha’s Vineyard — one of them the Caleb of the title — attended there in its early days.
Caleb is a real historical character, but very little is known about his life, leaving Brooks free to imagine many details. Caleb is not the viewpoint character: the story is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, a young minister’s daughter who befriends Caleb and becomes fascinated with native lifestyle and beliefs, even as she chafes against the restrictions placed on women and wishes she, too, could obtain a Harvard education. Brooks does well what so many writers do badly — creates an ambitious young female character who has difficulty accepting the narrow life of women in her time, yet isn’t anachronistically feminist or rebellious. Bethia dislikes the fact that her father, brother and other men in her life don’t believe she should be educated, yet she doesn’t question their fundamental right to make decisions for her nor their belief that God’s will (as interpreted by men) must determine her life choices.
Like all the best historical fiction, Caleb’s Crossing offers a vivid, tantalizing glimpse into the past that makes me feel like I’ve really been there — and that I wish I could extend my visit!