Once again, I had spoken too freely. I seemed too dense witted to learn the simple lesson: silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.
These are the profound words of Bethia Mayfield, the voice in Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. Profound, because they sum up the expectation imposed upon Puritan women in the 1600’s. Be seen, not heard. Be dutiful, modest, productive, obedient, submissive, and grateful.
And what of happiness? Happiness was a luxury. Life at that time was about attending to basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. Intellectual pursuits were reserved for males, and on “the island” described in the novel, a few males of the Wampanoag tribe as well. Caleb, for whom the novel is named, is one of them. Although a supporting character, some of the questions he asks and the identity he adopts makes the reader re-examine which people are savage and which are truly educated and dignified.
Hardship permeates throughout. The white men and native people try to coexist, but an undercurrent of determined hostility lingers. The word “sonquem” is used frequently. The best definition I could find of “sonquem” was “conquered.” In the novel’s context, the English buy or take land from the sonquem, the conquered people.
This is a novel which requires attention and commitment. The language is elevated, yet lyrical, and through Bethia’s eyes we come to understand that she is much more than what she shows others, and certainly much more than they acknowledge.
The characters experience great losses, disease, racism, indentured servitude, and public humiliation. At a time when most were endeavoring to be as Christian as possible, compassion and mercy were virtues rarely called upon. However, despite the bleak setting, we also see characters experience self-realization, regret, and love.
As the reader, I was motivated by Bethia’s fortitude and creativity during extreme trials of all varieties. At the end of the story, she calls Caleb a hero. In her eyes, perhaps he was. I think her modest nature and humble upbringing prevented her from realizing all that she accomplished, which you will see when you enter her world. I’m happy I did.