In the Afterword to her latest novel, Caleb’s crossing, which was inspired by the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, Geraldine Brooks describes the reactions of members of the Wampanoag Tribe:
Individual tribal members have been encouraging and generous in sharing information and insights and in reading early drafts. Others have been frank in sharing reservations about an undertaking that fictionalises the life of a beloved figure and sets down an imagined version of that life that may be interpreted as factual. This afterword attempts to address those reservations somewhat by distinguishing scant fact from rampant invention.
This concern – “an imagined version … that may be interpreted as factual” – should by now be familiar to readers of Whispering Gums. In fact, this book has several synchronicities with my recent and current reads. There must be something in the water! Firstly, the issue of fictionalising the life of a historical figure is something I have raised a few times, but most recently in my review of Tansley’s A break in the chain. And then there’s Scott’s That deadman dance which explores early contact in Australia between white settlers and indigenous people. Very different stories and yet several similar concerns and issues, such as those regarding land, education, and cultural attitudes to material possession and to hunting. And there’s more! My next review will probably be Leslie Cannold‘s The book of Rachael which is set in biblical times and features a fictional woman who loves learning and rebels against the strictures of her gender.
I love it when my reading interacts closely like this, when books enable me to explore and play off ideas against each other – so I thought, given this and the fact that there are already many reviews out there, that I’d tease these out a little instead of my more usual review. But first a brief outline of the plot, which provides a mostly imagined backstory to the real Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk through the eyes (journals) of the fictional white girl/woman Bethia Mayfield. The book starts in 1660 when Bethia is 15 years old, but it quickly flashes back a few years to when she met Caleb while out clamming and it describes the friendship which developed between them, forged by a mutual interest in learning about each other’s culture. Idyllic really, but of course it doesn’t last. Caleb is noticed as a young man with the potential to achieve in the white world and comes to live with Bethia’s family, so he can be taught by her father. Eventually, Caleb and another indigenous student, Joel Iacoomis, go to school and then Harvard along with Bethia’s not particularly clever brother, Makepeace. By a cruel twist of fate, Bethia goes with them as an indentured servant. She’s not too disappointed about this because she hopes to surreptitiously acquire a bit of learning too. That’s the gist of the story … and if you know the history, you’ll also know roughly how it all ends, but I won’t spoil that here.
And so to the first issue, fictionalising a historical figure. Brooks is upfront in saying hers is “rampant invention” inspired by “scant fact”. Like Grenville in The secret river, Brooks uses a real figure to explore how and why it might have been, though, unlike Grenville, she retains the name of her inspiration. This muddies the water for the unwary reader but it is common to historical fiction. How many novels have been written about, for example, Anne Boleyn? I have no problem with this. She and Grenville, unlike Tansley, are very clear about their fiction and are not afraid to imagine where there are gaps. Her Caleb may not be the Caleb of history but he is a Caleb whose motivations makes sense:
You will pour across the land, and we will be smothered … We must find favor with your God, or die.
And this brings me to the second synchronicity, that concerning early contact between white settlers and indigenous inhabitants. Brooks (a white Australian author based in the USA) and Kim Scott (a Noongar author from Western Australia) explore similar territory but from different points of view: hers is told in the voice of a white woman, and Scott’s has a more complex narrative voice but from an indigenous perspective. Both explore the complexity in motivations. In white society, we see the whole gamut from altruism through attempts to “get along”/cooperate to arrogance, cruelty and greed. And we see an equally complex response from the indigenous people, from Caleb’s “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” to Tequamuck’s anger and aggression. The end result, as history shows us, is the same … and neither book (nor Grenville’s) is anything other than realistic about it.
Finally, there’s the gender issue. This – like Grenville’s writing about colonial attitudes to indigenous people – is where writers are often criticised for being anachronistic, for putting modern attitudes into the mouths of historical people. It’s a criticism I tend not to share (providing the character is coherent within the text). “New” ideas do not pop out of nowhere. They grow and develop over time, and they grow from exceptional people – not necessarily well-known people, but people who thought ahead of their times – and novelists, almost by definition, tend to explore the “exceptional”. I have no problem believing that a “Bethia” or a “Rachael” lived in their times … just as I have no problem with what some critics have called Thornhill’s “anachronistic sensitivites” in The secret river.
Enough rambling, back to the book! Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I think it worked? Partly. Geraldine Brooks is a good storyteller and I read this book in quicksmart time. I was interested in the characters and I wanted to know what happened to them. Brooks evokes the era well, using enough vocabulary and phrasing of the period to immerse you in the time and place. Her physical descriptions are beautiful. You know exactly why Bethia would prefer her island home to the streets of Cambridge. The themes – colonial cross-cultural conflict, gender roles, coping with loss – are valid and clear. And her wide cast of characters realistically cover the gamut of attitudes you’d expect.
And yet, I’m not sure she quite pulls it off. My concern is not so much with her vision, with the ideas she puts in the mouths of her characters, but with her mode of telling. She is rather heavy-handed with the foreshadowing. It’s a valid technique given the story is told in retrospect but it feels overused, which somewhat devalues its dramatic impact. I also wonder whether telling Caleb’s story through Bethia’s eyes means we don’t get to know Caleb well enough, resulting in our not being as emotionally engaged with him as we could be. There are hints of sexual tension between Bethia and Caleb but they are never played out. Perhaps doing so would have turned it to melodrama and yet, once hinted, it needed some resolution. I tend to like first person stories and the immediacy they provide, but maybe a different narrative voice (even multiple points of view) would have been better here.
All that said, it’s an enjoyable read. Reasonably early in the book, Bethia writes:
this truth my mother had voiced … that it could not go on, this crossing out of one world and into another.
Near the end she wonders:
If I had turned away from that boy … and ridden back to my own world and left him in peace with his gods and his spirits, would it have been better?
Would it? Now there’s the million dollar question!
London: Fourth Estate, 2011