A Memoirist Take on Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel, Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

by Matilda Butler on June 1, 2011

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #86 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Memoir Writers Can Learn Much from Fiction

For obvious reasons, Women’s Memoirs publishes book reviews of memoirs. However, occasionally a film or a book is so compelling that it seems as if it were a memoir. Recently, our frequent reviewer, Lanie Tankard, came to us with a proposal. She had just finished Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel and felt the powerful story would be of considerable interest to memoir writers. We agreed. As I write this introduction, the book is #48 on Amazon.

Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel

by Geraldine Brooks

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

Caleb’s Crossing, a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, could easily be subtitled “Bethia’s Memoir.” For the novel is as much the story of real-life Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665, as it is the tale of fictionalized Bethia Mayfield, a young female Puritan longing for knowledge in a world shuttered to women. Cultures, races, and genders all collide here.


The memoir is set mostly on the island now called Martha’s Vineyard, told in Bethia’s voice drawn from her journal entries. Readers are introduced to her when she is fifteen, as she reviews her life up to that point. The story continues into her old age.

Bethia first meets Caleb when she is twelve, and they become secret friends teaching each other about their cultures and languages. She shows him a book, an object he has never before seen. As the tale begins, Caleb is leaving his Wampanoag tribe to study with her father, a Puritan minister who hopes to convert Caleb to Christianity in the course of educating him. By the end of the first chapter, one can hardly put the book down.

Caleb’s impending arrival spurs Bethia to initiate her diary. The act of writing a journal or memoir was not easy for a female of that era, facing dawn-to-dusk chores, no schooling, and possible censure at Meeting. As Bethia puts it: “I have gathered what scraps of paper I could scavenge from my brother’s store, and I intend to use whatever moments I can eke out before each day’s weariness claims me. My hand is unlovely, since father did not school me in writing, but as this relation is for my own eyes, it makes no mind.” She uses her pilfered paper judiciously, “on every sheet, my own scrawls, writ dense front and back.”

Bethia hides her pages sewn into the hem of her shakedown, which Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines thus: “an improvised bed, as one made up on the floor.”

Throughout, she analyzes her journal writing, chastising herself at one point “to be more clear in my account going forward. I must not jump hither and yon, as I did in my writing yester eve. And this also: I must refrain from indulging in excesses of sensibility and flights of morbid imagination.”

[KINDLE VERSION SHOWN TO THE LEFT] Such tremendous courage it must have taken for Puritan women to exhibit any deviation from the norm. “That I might be literate but not learned was the choice of my father; the lot of a girlchild,” explains Bethia in her memoir. She brings the Sixties to life — the Sixteen Sixties — and offers insight to women’s lives today with vivid examples of the roots of outright discrimination in the seventeenth century.

Bethia learns from her mother and others that “silence is a woman’s sole safe harbor.” Quietly she does her chores near where her father teaches subjects such as Latin to her brother Makepeace, Caleb, and Joel Iacoomis, another real-life Wampanoag Indian. Bethia becomes skilled at listening. “I have become most proficient in it,” she notes in her memoir, undoubtedly meaning both listening and Latin.

Her father tells her early on, albeit gently: “Your path is not your brother’s, it cannot be. Women are not made like men. You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you.”

Bethia is determined to learn, however. She “ached to read the words of a learned woman, because such women lived and died in silence while men alone set down their thoughts.” Brooks points out in her Afterword: “Colonial archives contain no surviving female diaries before seventeen hundred and very few letters.”

Therefore, Bethia consumes every word she encounters, particularly those written by the few strong role models of her gender available then. Bethia finds an Anne Bradstreet poem on the page of a broadside someone had used to wrap a bottle, and becomes transfixed by America’s first published female poet. Bethia offers to sweep for the sexton at their meetinghouse so he can catch a nap, during which she is able to read records of the testimony of Anne Hutchinson, who had been housed and tried there.

As circumstances bring Caleb, Joel, and Makepeace to Cambridge for study, Bethia secures a job in the Harvard buttery, realizing that the room where food provisions are stored is next to the room where scholars dine. Thus, Bethia can overhear the president’s lectures to the students. With wry wit, she notes in her memoir “here was I, at college, as I had always longed to be” even though her hands were kneading dough.

Bethia often turns to Caleb for advice. And as both Caleb and Joel face subtle social exclusions — nothing overt, mind you, merely lack of welcome and “an array of small slights” — Bethia tries to assist her friends.

Bethia ends her memoir many years later, reminiscing as a dying woman. “Now, when everything else has gone, this is what remains: vision and memories.” In her last days, she chuckles at lines penned when she was a young girl. Her hand aches from writing, but she pushes on to finish her memoir, “to account for my life, and for my part in Caleb’s crossing from his world into mine, and what flowed from it.”

The crossing of Caleb spans many layers of meaning— the religious crossing, the X mark made by people who cannot write, the shift from one culture to another, the seven-mile water crossing of hard currents, to do something that goes against another’s wishes, to be angry or upset, a cross to bear as a difficulty in one’s life, the double crossing of Caleb in subtle ways, and the cross-examination of a scholar prior to graduation.

All such crossings may produce a hybrid unable to survive. Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk died of tuberculosis, then called consumption, only a year after he graduated. With the courage of an Arctic explorer, he had crossed over — from his tribe to the English Puritan world, from the island to the mainland, from the Wampanaontoaonk language to English, Latin, and Hebrew. Bethia both cheers his ultimate triumph when he graduates from Harvard and weeps at the price he paid. She settles her mind and heart by writing her memoir, “a dissonant and tragical lament.”

Harvard College, originally chartered in 1650 to educate both Puritans and Indians, received subsidies from England for that purpose and constructed an Indian College — torn down almost half a century later following King Philip’s War. Remnants from the site have recently been uncovered.

Brooks has done a masterful job weaving fact and fiction together to bring alive those long-ago times. She constructs Bethia’s compelling memoir, which did not happen in real life, around the actual lives of both Caleb and Joel. As Brooks explains in the Afterword: “Caleb’s Crossing is inspired by a true story. It is, however, a work of imagination.” She had little in the way of primary sources to draw upon for her research, and notes she encountered “reflexive racism” in many of her secondary.

Because she lives on Martha’s Vineyard, Brooks was able to paint vivid scenes there from centuries gone by with her literary paintbrush. Her poetic depiction of such occurrences as “summer rain that lays the dust and washes the pollen from the air, leaving everything rinsed and bright” can spring only from firsthand observation.

Her descriptions of grief are acutely accurate renderings of loss. Brooks wields commas artfully, enchancing simple sentences with emotional sincerity: “The sound of it is with me, still.”

The publication of Caleb’s Crossing in May, 2011 is dually significant for both race and gender. On May 26, 2011, Tiffany Smalley will become the first Wampanoag Indian undergraduate from Harvard in almost three-and-a-half centuries. She will also accept a posthumous degree on behalf of Joel Iacoomis, who was murdered shortly before he was to graduate in 1665 with Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk.

The fact that these degrees were awarded by a female president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, would likely make the fictional Bethia Mayfield smile with delight.

If you are interested in the story of the posthumous degree award, click here.

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Memoir-Journaling, memoir writing, book reviewLanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

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