I resisted reading Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks for nearly eighteen months. It has sat at the bottom of a pile of books beside my bed and never quite reached the top. I took it away with me somewhat reluctantly and only read it because I had read everything else in my pile.
Despite my misgivings, it is a beautifully written story about a Puritan family living on Martha’s Vineyard just off the coast from Boston in the mid 1600s. The narrator is Bethia, who at the start is about fifteen and the daughter of the island’s preacher. She is highly intelligent and is largely self educated, as education of girls is not encouraged by this community. Bethia befriends an Indian boy who she names Caleb – first they speak in his language, which she has taught herself to speak, and then in English which she teaches him to speak and later to write. It is a secret friendship that lasts a couple of years.
Bethia’s early life is beset with tragedy after tragedy – it makes me realise how easy my life is in comparison. The character of Caleb is based on a true person – he was the first Indian to graduate from Harvard University – he left the island and studied there for four years. Remnants remain in the library collection of his hand written latin work.
This book follows Caleb’s move to study on the mainland with Bethia working close by. By this stage their friendship has changed. During this time when they live in Cambridge Bethia discovers Anne Bradstreet a Puritan woman who has written poetry most of her life. Her poetry is later published in England and in the States and is still available today. Anne’s father and husband both become Governors, so she comes from a wealthy and influential family.
I was telling Keith about this Anne Bradstreet and he had just bought her collected poetry out of interest. I have now had a look at The Works of Anne Bradstreet and she has written some moving poems – about her husband – who she clearly loves and her children. Anne had a difficult and sad life – she faced major illnesses, struggled to fall pregnant, lost several grandchildren in early infancy and her daughter-in-law during childbirth. There is an interesting poem she wrote on facing childbirth – it was a risky business and the prospect of dying was a reality – she talks about how she feels about her husband losing her and making a new life for himself – it is wistful and sad. Her poetry reflects her Christian faith and convictions – she never loses sight of a future that will be much better in heaven.
Reading both these books have given me much to think about – Geraldine Brooks is quite anti-Christian, so I am wondering if her portrayal of the life of a young woman growing up in a puritan household is as anti-education as she suggests. Interestingly,in 1637-38 there was a trial of Anne Hutchinson who was also a poet who was exiled for her heretical views. This event is discussed in both these books. John Winthrop wrote in 1645 about this woman and blames the fact that she spent so much time reading and writing – did this event have an impact on how other women were treated? I am not sure, but it is certainly an interesting question.
I am glad I read both these – they have certainly whetted my appetite to know more about the Puritans, which is probably a good thing seeing that is what Keith is working on at present. God does work in mysterious ways.