It makes for a happy, little winter project when you find a writer you like who has a manageable backlog of titles. This year, I was introduced to Geraldine Brooks’ particular brand of feminist historical fiction when gifted People of the Book this past Christmas. I finished it with a surprisingly rapid pace, and was struck by Brooks’ imaginative interpretation of the distant past while still maintaining the measured, conservative analysis of ‘what it must have been like’ back then.
The format of People of the Book was all over the place, by design, since the story relates the life of a religious text over the course of 600 years in a handful of countries. Caleb’s Crossing, however, meditatively focuses on the inner thoughts of one young woman living in colonial Martha’s Vineyard. Bethia (the main character) is quite progressive for her time, stealing Latin and bible lessons by overhearing her father and brother’s daily discourse while she does her woman’s work. In this way she also learns Wopanaotaok, the native language of the tribe that already lived on Martha’s Vineyard before it was even called that, and excels at it even over her learned father. Her grasp of the language opens doors to her that are inherently forbidden for a woman and 17th century Christian.
The relationships of the people set out early in the novel grow and develop throughout its pages which is interesting enough, but what is really fascinating is the portrait Brooks’ paints of a woman during this time who should dare to use her mind, even just a little. Bethia eventually finds herself working in the buttery (what the heck is that? Sounds delicious…) at the newly founded Harvard College, stealing lessons once again through the adjoining window from president and professors while she attends to scrubbing pewter tankards with sand and baking bread, which these characters eat endlessly, as if nothing else exists in Puritan Massachusetts which, to be fair, is probably true.
I’m a skeptic, so when I read historical fiction I view the ‘historical’ part of the genre as a guideline the author uses and nothing more — though Brooks has made intensive research on all aspects of her novel. Imbuing historical truths (i.e. a Wampanoag man attending Harvard in the 1600s, which is by all accounts and documents true) can lead to confusion if the reader doesn’t have an active awareness that ‘this didn’t really happen’ but, oh look, ‘this actually did.’ Brooks does an excellent job of clearing up the solid truths, inspirational stories and out-and-out fabrications at the end of the book, which I totally appreciated.
The really positive part of reading historical fiction is that it has made me want to pursue more works of non-fiction on this story, the historical figures mentioned, and what Massachusetts was like 400 years ago. I lived in Boston for 6 years but couldn’t have given a wharf rat’s ass about history (I actually lived right down the street from Paul Revere’s house, who is a whippersnapper compared to these characters) but Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing has ignited the learning spark. Thank you!
Next time I find myself at the book store I’m seeking out Year of Wonder which I have been saving for last (I won’t be reading March, since I haven’t read Little Women and really don’t feel like doing so) since plague, disease and trauma are one of my favorite things to read about. No joke!