My daughter performed a number with her choir called “Why We Sing,” a stirring song in praise of music. At times it brings pleasure to recall why we do what we do: why we sing or draw or sew or climb trees or do whatever it is we live for and love. This week my anthem is “Why We Read,” and this is why: Geraldine Brooks. Because she writes like she does, I read like I do: voraciously and gratefully.
Last year my seniors book group was collectively glued to Brooks’ People of the Book and we were eager to try another of her novels. When a selection provokes mixed reactions, productive conversation may result, but it is also gratifying when a group is cohesive in its enjoyment and appreciation. We all chuckled our witty way through Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader and savored the good-hearted and soapy epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This month we were able to experience that cohesive feeling with a more serious work of fiction: Caleb’s Crossing, Brooks’ latest historical novel.
The story takes place in the 1660’s on Martha’s Vineyard and centers on Bethia Mayfield, the teenage daughter of a Puritan missionary to the native people. Left motherless, Bethia struggles to raise her infant sister and accept her lot, be it ever so filled with pain and disaster. Brooks creates an unforgettable voice for this character. In one passage in which Bethia mourns yet another tragedy in her young life, I felt I was reading one of the most moving, true accounts of what it means to miss the dead we have loved with our entire, aching hearts.
Bethia is plagued by an inconvenient craving for knowledge and her father lovingly but firmly gives her to know that books are not a woman’s purview. The novel sweeps us along as Bethia is pushed and pulled by the will of the men in her life, the dictates of her culture, and her desperate longing for companionship. She has a searching spirit, seeking out natural beauty and reveling in the created world, but also trembling in terror at the possibility that she will be damned.
Caleb, the young native man who Bethia’s father takes under his wing, serves as the counterpoint to her. He also fights to remain true to what he knows is right, while being acted on by those more powerful than he is. When Brooks discovered that two native men graduated from Harvard College in the late 1660’s, it became the seed for her tale; she based Caleb’s character on one of the historical figures, about whom few facts remain. There are several characters in the story who share a name and biographical details with actual historical figures.
I asked the group if they thought Brooks loves her characters. They were not sure how to respond, and I may not have phrased the question well, though I am still not sure how to do a better job of asking it. I believe that a writer who pieces together a person out of the cloth of her imaginings and offers her to us, transforming us in the process, must have deep affection for her characters. Brooks doesn’t take the easy way out; her book is peopled by a complex and flawed cast. Like us, they are sinners and saints, all. To meet them and peer into their broken hearts is a bittersweet privilege.