Monday, January 09, 2012


Prompted by a friend, I finally read Caleb's Crossing. Written by acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks (she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for March), I found it more than disappointing.

The Caleb in the title is Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. He was the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard, way back in 1646. But, as Brooks tells us, Cheeshahteaumauk was the inspiration for the Caleb in her story.  She's careful to tell us this is fiction. She's making up all kinds of things about him.

Her Caleb gets that name from Bethia, the protagonist. She names him.  He calls her Storm Eyes. It is her teachings that bring him to the notice of her father (a minister) who brings him into their home for education and enlightenment. They rescue and convert this heathen salvage (oh, I forgot... her father insists they call them by their tribal name rather than salvage).

The real Cheeshahteaumauk died soon after he graduated from Harvard.

In Caleb's Crossing, Bethia saves Caleb on his death bed. She does that by visiting his pagan uncle and going through a ceremony that she cannot disclose (cleverly can't disclose). After that, she goes to Caleb and whispers to him, in Wampanoag, verses she's learned from that pagan uncle. This comforts him tremendously ("the lines of pain of a sudden all erased" p. 297) and then she lights a bundle of herbs and waves them around the room. Last, she puts a wampum belt on his chest. With his last breaths he sings his death song.

That isn't the first time Bethia goes Native. She did it early in the novel, too, when she comes upon a village where the people are dancing. She removes her sleeves, hose, and shoes and "found the rhythm. Thought ceased, and an animal sense drove me until, in the end, I danced with abandon." (pp 30-31).

Early in the book when I read the passages where Bethia first looks at the Indian she would name Caleb, it was like reading one of those bodice rippers you get at the grocery store, where a white woman gazes at the body of the Indian man shown on the cover. It was hard, in other words, for me to take this novel seriously.

I asked colleagues who study Native literature about Caleb's Crossing, and of the several who responded, nobody defended it. Indeed, one pointed to the USA Today review that said the novel is a mashup of Avatar and Dances with Wolves. (For those who don't know, both of those films are much derided within Native circles.) Click here to read the review in USA Today.

I don't know why the novel is called Caleb's Crossing. It is far more about Bethia than Caleb. The answer may be on page 230, where Bethia and Master Corlett (he runs the prep school that Caleb goes to prior to going to Harvard) are talking about President Chauncy (he runs the Indian College at Harvard) who, Corlett says "has come to think of the entire venture as a kind of milch cow" (p 230).

Looking at the reviews of the novel, I think that Caleb is a milch cow for Brooks and her publisher! I wish she hadn't used Caleb Cheeshahteaumuak as she did.  She could have chosen a different name for that character and still told the story she tells. In the Author's Note (page ix), she writes:
I have presumed to give Caleb's name to my imagined character in the hope of honoring the struggle, sacrifice and achievement of this remarkable young scholar.
Unfortunately for all of us, I think her book dishonors him and his achievements in the same ways that stereotypical mascots are said to "honor" American Indians. The thing is that people do really want to know about American Indians. There are better places to go for that knowledge and there are ways to become more informed and critical readers of these 'honorable' portrayals. One place to start is by reading articles in journals like Studies in American Indian Literatures. If more writers and editors spent time with critical works like those found there, the result would be better literature for all of us.

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