The title of this book is misleading. It’s not really a book about Caleb, the first Native American man to graduate from Harvard University in 1665 and thus ‘cross’ the dividing lines between his own culture and religion and that of his Puritan neighbours. It’s really a book about its narrator, Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan pastor, who befriends Caleb and constantly dances along the lines between her loyalty to her own culture and religion and Caleb’s. Even more interesting to me however was the way Bethia tries to navigate the lines that separated men and women in her time and the way she struggles as she crosses the lines that demarcate her love and loyalty towards her family and her desire to be her ‘own person’ and do what she finds fulfilling and rewarding.
This is my second Geraldine Brooks’ book- I also read People of the Book with my Hong Kong book club- but I enjoyed this book more, perhaps because I could identify with each of Bethia’s ‘line crossing’ struggles.
An illustration by Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times review of the book illustrates the cultural differences between the two protagonists. I have lived in two very different cultures than my own- one on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, where Dave and I taught for a year, and the other in Hong Kong, where we lived and worked for six years. I liked the way Bethia was open to experiencing the Wampanoag culture she encountered with her friend Caleb. His language, food, music, family relationships and social practices intrigue her and she can’t help but explore them. My life too was enriched as I learned to appreciate the beauty of the Hopi language ( actually our younger son Bucky became the most proficient at it) and the lively sing-song cadences of the nine tones of Cantonese. I liked eating piki bread and dim sum and observing the way strong women in both the Chinese and Hopi cultures shape their family’s lives as well as the way both cultures show such high regard and respect for their elders. The emphasis placed on artistic expression in the Hopi culture and on education in the Chinese culture influenced me both personally and professionally.
An illustration of Caleb’s Crossing by Anthony Russo in the New York Times review of the book shows the struggle Bethia has as she encounters Caleb’s religion. She sees so much value in it and even drinks the liquid that will allow her to go on a ‘short’ vision quest, the way Caleb does when he is crossing the line between childhood and manhood. Yet her father is a Christian pastor and in her own way Bethia is very devout and truly believes God has a plan and purpose for her life and is in control of it. As I learned more about the Hopi religion during my time in Arizona and the Buddhist faith during my time in Hong Kong I too struggled with how both religions seemed to serve their purposes in their respective cultures and ‘work’ for the people who followed those faiths in their settings just as my Christian faith did for me. Learning about other religions shouldn’t be a ‘scary’ or a ‘guilt laden experience’ the way it was for Bethia, when doing so can only serve to enrich our own faith. The Hopis knew how to worship in colorful community ways that left no one a mere observer and the temples I visited in Hong Kong were definitely places where people found hope, solace and healing.
Bethia is intelligent and eager to learn but she lives in a time when education is not for women. She sneaks back and forth across this gender line constantly -covertly reading books, listening to the boys’ lessons, intellectually sparing with Caleb and keeping a journal where she records her ideas and thoughts. She also finds it hard to reconcile herself to the idea that men- her brother, her father, her husband should have control of HER life. I too have struggled with gender lines in the past. I fought for maternity leave rights in my school division so that women would be better able to balance their personal and professional lives and in my writing and speaking I tried to address the use of non-inclusive language particularly in the church and to make people aware of the many strong and influential women in the Bible and in history.
I think we all can identify with the struggle between personal fulfillment and family committment. Bethia experiences this so often in Caleb’s Crossing. The death of her mother means she must set her own personal plans aside to care for her family. She must sacrifice her own desire for an education so her older brother can be educated. I found it hard when I was first married to give in to what Dave wanted instead of doing what I wanted to do. That struggle never stops in a marriage but you grow more comfortable with it and it can even become a source of growth, learning and joy. But………. I have found that you need to have a line you can’t cross when it comes to being true to yourself and doing what your partner wants you to do. If you cross that line you lose yourself. I found it easier I think to set aside my own personal desires and plans to give my children’s needs and desires priority. Perhaps their vulnerability as children made that easier and the way their happiness was so intertwined with my own. Although this has not been a big struggle for me personally I do know people who have had to draw an uncrossable line between self -survival and their loyalty to their children. I think this same struggle has been there for me with my extended family- parents and grandparents and other relatives- doing what they think I should do and believe is right for me and what I think is best.
I would recommend Caleb’s Crossing but I think it should have been called Bethia’s Crossing. One thing I am enjoying about being retired is that I have more time to read. What book is next? I have just started Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth- another story about a young woman who must deal with lots of ‘line crossings’ in her life.