NOVEMBER 20, 2012
IN HIS EXCELLENT ESSAY, “Parvenucracy,” about that most addictive of TV series, Downton Abbey, Alexander Chee makes this provocative statement: “all historical fictions are ruses — to succeed, they all flash a bit of what Genet would call the garter, the anachronism that tells you it’s not real — this is what engages the audience.” In Downton Abbey, the “garter” is the continuance of the estate and Lord Grantham’s way of life within it: these things would never exist if it weren’t for Lady Grantham’s fortune. Lord Grantham, Chee argues, is actually the director of a theatre piece for the benefit of Lady Grantham. This is the way things used to be, his life says, wasn’t it grand? And Lady Grantham, charmed by her lord’s nostalgia project, keeps him in cash. Equally charmed, we do the same for the production staff and all the good people at Masterpiece Theater.
In Caleb’s Crossing, the garter is the narrator herself, Bethia Mayfield. Bethia is the daughter of a Puritan missionary and granddaughter of the founder of a colony of “English” living in a settlement called Great Harbor on “the island” (an early Martha’s Vineyard). Bethia sets her story down in a “spiritual diary” on scraps of paper she’s stolen from her brother, Makepeace, and she divides her narrative in three sections. The first, set in 1660 when Bethia is 15, tells how Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wampanoag Indian and nephew of the tribe’s great shaman or pawaaw, came to study Christian thought and classical languages and literature with her father at the Mayfield house. The second, set in 1661, tells of their journey from Great Harbor to Cambridge, where Caleb and Makepeace continue their studies at Master Corlett’s grammar school and then move on to “the college” (an early Harvard). And the third jumps to 1715, when Bethia is an old woman on her deathbed, and brings the story of Caleb’s crossing — from the island to the mainland, and from one culture to another — to a tragic close. Brooks is a meticulous researcher, and Bethia’s voice is full of tantalizing colonial-era words — haggering, fanfarroons, sonquem, wetu — all of which help bulk out the illusion that the mind we’re engaging with is really a creature of its time. Brooks’s language is carefully laid down. Here’s one of many delicious passages, this one coming early in the book, when Bethia is reflecting on her girlhood:
Those hot, salt-scoured afternoons when the shore curved away in its long glistening arc toward the distant bluffs. The leaf-dappled, loamy mornings in the cool bottoms, where I picked the sky-colored berries and felt each one burst, sweet and juicy, in my mouth. I made this island mine, mile by mile, from the soft, oozing clay of the rainbow cliffs to the rough chill of the granite boulders that rise abruptly in the fields, thwarting the plough, shading the sheep. I love the fogs that wreathe us all in milky veils, and the winds that moan and keen in the chimney piece at night. Even when the wrack line is crusted with salty ice and the ways through the woods crunch under my clogs, I drink the cold air in the low blue gleam that sparkles on the snow.
For anyone who’s ever spent any time on Martha’s Vineyard or in coastal New England — or who dreams of that place — passages like these offer a special richness.
But while Bethia may sound like a creature of her time, she doesn’t think like one. She is a modern feminist post-colonial intellectual wearing the trappings and language of a colonial goodwife. And, on balance, I found her anachronistic cast of mind a little hard to buy. She never cuts the bonds her family, culture, and religion place on her, but she constantly chafes against them. This in itself is not hard to believe — what woman wouldn’t chafe, even silently, against the expectations of Puritan America? Bethia is not silent, though she knows she should be — again and again, she speaks out, out-quoting her brother at Hebrew in her father’s presence, to prove her own superior intellect, loudly contradicting Master Corlett in his condemnation of Caleb and his fellow Wampanoag student, Joel, when another female Wampanoag student turns up pregnant, swearing at her brother when he tells her he plans to marry her to a man she doesn’t want. She’s beyond strident by her own century’s standards. But even this in itself isn’t completely implausible. What’s implausible is the fact that she receives virtually no censure for her outbursts. Men, who held all the power in the days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and generally believed in exercising it, seem to simply fade beneath the strength of her mind and will.
The one exception is Makepeace, her brother, who beats her once for disobedience and cursing. Other than periodic scoldings, this is the only comeuppance Bethia receives. But Puritan America was brutal! Women like Bethia were regularly hung by the neck until they were dead in Salem, mainly because they were pains in the asses of the men who were trying to control them. The fact that Bethia is able to be so free in her thinking and her speech, and seems so willing to find ways around the expectations that are put upon her just strained belief a bit too much for me. Maybe it’s true that all historical fictions are ruses, and maybe we do need to swallow a little — or a lot — of anachronism with our history in order to engage with the story, but I think there must be limits. And Bethia, to my mind, pushes the limits. I felt, throughout, the hand of the author at work, asking again and again for my approval of Bethia — isn’t she right?, isn’t she just?, isn’t she so much smarter than all these self-righteous men surrounding her? — and this made me like her less. It seemed to me that Brooks’s hand, in turn, was being guided by nightstick-wielding thought-police lurking at the borders of her imagination.
Granted, this is tricky terrain. It’s impossible to write about a colonized culture as an outsider without confronting questions of political correctness, even if you’re not a member of the colonizing brood (Brooks is Australian, and probably holds little to none of the congenital guilt common to Puritan-descended white folk like me). And Brooks is delving into the original conflict itself, during the birth pangs of this country, a conflict that was so brutal and so intractable that it still makes us want to clamp our collective hands over our collective ears and shout la la la la la at the top of our collective lungs.
However, if you’re going to choose to think about this time and place — and it is a fascinating time to think about — through the complex and finely-tuned thinking machine that good fiction is, it seems to me you need to go all the way there. And then you need to stay there, and stay there, and stay there. And Brooks does not quite go all the way there in this book. Bethia gets off too easily, and as a result, her crossing between cultures — which, as she is the protagonist, should be the true subject of the story, the main plot to Caleb’s subplot — is left undeveloped. The utter modernity of her mind means that she’s already made the crossing at the book’s outset, and so at the end of the book, when she must make a final, climactic cultural crossing, there is little feeling of any real suspense. This problem is exacerbated by Brooks’s choice to summarize what should be the most climactic scene of the book, for reasons that I can only assume have to do with her desire to please those big-shouldered thought-police thugs.
I might have found the book more satisfying if Brooks had decided to tell the story straight through from beginning to end. As it stands, there are three frames, one for each of the three parts of the book — first, we read pages written while Bethia awaits Caleb’s arrival, then, pages written during stolen candlelight hours in her new position as servant to Master Corlett, then the final deathbed accounting. Each of these frames must be established as that part’s present-time narrative, which means that the rest of each of the three parts of the book is told in flashback, a technique that sacrifices the story’s sense of urgency. I found this to be particularly true in the final part, which read to me like a long denouement rather than the final ascent to the summit.
It’s a testament to Brooks’s skill that despite the inherent challenges of her structure and the daunting political implications of her material, the book is still a good read. The very fact of Caleb’s existence — in history as well as fiction — is fascinating and affecting, and Bethia’s relationship with him is complex and full of feeling. Had Brooks chosen to shift the emphasis of the story, or maybe revise its structure, so that we had more of a chance to engage fully with Bethia’s spiritual crossing — from a member of a thoroughgoing Puritan family (albeit one who treated the “savages” more kindly than most of their brethren) who believed in the rock-solid truth of their own religion and the fiery hell that awaited all sinners, including uninitiated heathens, into a wider reality in which men like Caleb were possessed of their own very rich forms of wisdom and humanity (not to mention sex appeal) — had we been allowed to make that crossing with her, growth pang by growth pang, then the book might have been more than just a good read. It might very well have given us what great historical fiction can offer: an enthralling illustration of the past and a startling illumination of the present.