Another powerful piece of historical fiction from Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing is the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665. The narrator is Bethia Mayfield, resident of Great Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard, who has some basis in the original settlers of the island, the Mayhews. But, as with her novel March, much of the story is imaginative as Brooks describes the friendship of Bethia and Caleb.
While that relationship is fictional, Brooks uses her significant skills to depict Colonial America with its focus on sinners in the hands of an angry God. Bethia’s natural curiosity and desire to live a full life leads her to blame herself for any number of ills that beset her family and friends. Yet, she revels in the natural wonders of the island and the descriptions of the natural world bring that island to life.
The story has one tragedy after another, most of which are historically accurate. Caleb dies just after his graduation while the other Native American student is killed in a ship wreck prior to his own graduation. Death is very much a character in this novel. Yet, despite all, there is an uplifting message.
I haven’t read Little Women for at least a decade, maybe two, but I remember it being a heartwarming novel with plucky characters. Geraldine Brooks’ novel, March, takes its basic story from that beloved novel but does not offer the same heartwarming pluckiness. It is a dark book, but in it darkness, we learn about the depths of evil and despair to which the human spirit can descend.
The title character is the March patriarch who is largely absent from the original novel as he ministers to troops during the Civil War. The first person narrative moves from past to present, written in convincing 19th century prose and providing glimpses into the world of Concord, where luminaries like Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne debate the issues of the day while slaves huddle in hidey holes waiting to move along the Underground Railroad to Canada.
In March, Brooks has created a complex character whose good intentions lead to unintended consequences. As he surveys the violence and death around him, he is stunned by his own culpability and wonders how he can move back into the world of his loving family. And at points, I wondered the same thing, finding that I didn’t really like him all that much but then discovering that it was because I was pulled in by his own beliefs about himself. He is human being with all the conflicts and paradoxes that we each bring and unlike the sometimes flat characters that I remember from the original novel, here is a rich portrait of a man.
But he is not alone in this novel: we meet his wife both through his own eyes and her own words. She is equally complex, struggling with her own demons as she tries to understand how her husband has been changed by his experiences in the South.
The portrait of Southern life is grittily real as slaves struggle to maintain some semblance of a life in the midst of the horrors of the plantation system. Small glimmers of hope are extinguished in brutal ways and yet they continue to hope and plan even as the war grinds on around them.
Brooks takes some license with history that may offend Civil War purists, but her resource section is full of first person narratives that help provide the human element of this historical novel. It doesn’t hurt that she is married to Tony Horwitz, a Civil War historian and once lived near the Ball’s Bluff battlefield that provides the opening scenes of the novel. She may not get the dates exactly right but her poignant story helps us understand the the humanity that makes the past so difficult to pin down.