A New York Times bestselling tale of passion and belief, magic and adventure from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author
Bethia Mayfield is a restless and curious young woman growing up in Martha's vineyard in the 1660s amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. At age twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's father is a Calvinist minister who seeks to convert the native Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes a prize in the contest between old ways and new, eventually becoming the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Inspired by a true story and narrated by the irresistible Bethia, Caleb’s Crossing brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk everything in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance.
He is coming on the Lord’s Day. Though my father has not seen fit to give me the news, I have the whole of it.
They supposed I slept, which I might have done, as I do each night, while my father and Makepeace whisper together on the far side of the blanket that divides our chamber. Most nights I take comfort in the low murmur of their voices. But last evening Makepeace’s voice rose urgent and anguished before my father hushed him. I expect that was what pulled me back from sleep. My brother frowns on excessive displays of temperament. I turned on my shakedown then and wondered, in a drowsy way, what it was that exercised him so. I could not hear what my father said, but then my brother’s voice rose again.
“How can you expose Bethia in this way?”
Of course, once I caught my own name that was an end to it; I was fully awake. I raised my head and strained to hear more. It was not difficult, for Makepeace could not govern his tongue, and though I could not make out my father’s words at all, fragments of my brother’s replies were clear.
“Of what matter that he prays? He is only—what is it?—Not yet a year?—removed from paganism, and that man who long had charge of him is Satan’s thrall—the most stiff-necked and dangerous of all of them, as you have said yourself often enough. . . .”
My father cut in then, but Makepeace would not be hushed.
“Of course not, father. Nor do I question his ability. But because he has a facility for Latin does not mean he knows the decencies required of him in a Christian home. The risk is . . .”
At that moment, Solace cried out, so I reached for her. They perceived I was awake then, and said no more. But it was enough. I wrapped up Solace and drew her to me on the shakedown. She shaped herself against me like a nestling bird and settled easily back to sleep. I lay awake, staring into the dark, running my hand along the rough edge of the roof beam that slanted an arm’s length above my head. Five days from now, the same roof will cover us both.
Caleb is coming to live in this house.
In the morning, I did not speak of what I had overheard. Listening, not speaking, has been my way. I have become most proficient in it. My mother taught me the use of silence. While she lived, I think that not above a dozen people in this settlement ever heard the sound of her voice. It was a fine voice, low and mellow, carrying the lilt of the Wiltshire village in England where she had passed her girlhood. She would laugh, and make rhymes full of the strange words of that place and tell us tales of things we had never seen: cathedrals and carriages, great rivers wide as our harbor, and streets of shops where one who had the coin might buy all manner of goods. But this was within the house, when we were a family. When she went about in the world, it was with downcast eyes and sealed lips. She was like a butterfly, full of color and vibrancy when she chose to open her wings, yet hardly visible when she closed them. Her modesty was like a cloak that she put on, and so adorned, in meekness and discretion, it seemed she passed almost hidden from people, so that betimes they would speak in front of her as if she were not there. Later, at board, if the matter was fit for childish ears, she would relate this or that important or diverting news she had gleaned about our neighbors and how they did. Oft times, what she learned was of great use to father, in his ministry, or to grandfather in his magistracy.
I copied her in this, and that was how I learned I was to loose her. Our neighbor, Goody Branch, who is midwife here, had sent me off to her cottage to fetch more groaning beer, in the hope that it would cool my mother’s childbed fever. Anxious as I was to fetch it back for her, I stood by the latch for some minutes when I heard my mother speaking. What she spake concerned her death. I waited to hear Goody Branch contradict her, to tell her all would be well. But no such words came. Instead, Goody Branch answered that she would see to certain matters that troubled my mother and that she should make her mind easy on those several accounts.
Three days later, we buried her. Although it was spring according to the calendar, the ground was not yet thawed. So we set a fire on the place my father had chosen, between the graves of my twin brother Zuriel, who had died when he was nine years old, and my other infant brother who had not tarried here long enough for us to name him. We tended the fire all through the night. Even so, at dawn, when my father and Makepeace commenced to dig, the shovel rang on that iron-hard earth. The sound of it is with me, still. The labor was such that father trembled all over afterward, his limbs palsied with the work of putting her to rest. So it is, out here on this island, where we dwell with our faces to the sea and our backs to the wilderness. Like Adam’s family after the fall, we have all things to do. We must be fettler, baker, apothecary, grave digger. Whatever the task, we must do it, or else do without.
It is near to a year now since my mother’s death, and since then I have had charge of Solace, and of the keeping of this house. I miss my mother, as I know father does, and Makepeace too in his way, although his affections are less warmly worn than ours. His faith also seems stronger in the way he is able to accept what befalls us as the working of divine will. We have all spent many sore days and nights examining our souls and our conduct to read what lesson the Lord intended for us in taking her so soon; what failings and sins he did mean to punish in us. And though I sit in prayerful reflection with my father on this matter of our spiritual estate, I have not given to him the ground of what I know to be true.
I killed my mother. I know that some would say I was a child who Satan, trickster, toyed with. But as to soul, there is neither youth nor age. Sin stains us at our birth and shadows our every hour. As the scripture tells us: Their foot shall slide in due time. Loose one’s footing, as I did, and age matters not. One cedes all claims to childish innocence. And my sins were not mere nursery mischief but matters etched in stone upon the tablets of mortal error. I broke the Commandments, day following day. And I did it knowingly. Minister’s daughter: how could I say otherwise? Like Eve, I thirsted after forbidden knowledge and I ate forbidden fruit. For her, the apple, for me, the white hellebore—different plants, proffered from the same hand. And just as that serpent must have been lovely—I see him, his lustrous, shimmering scales, pouring liquid over Eve’s shoulders, his jewel eyes luminous as they gazed into her own—so too did Satan come to me in a form of irresistible beauty.
Break God’s laws and suffer ye his wrath. Well, and so I do. The Lord lays his hand sore upon me, as I bend under the toil I now have—mother’s and mine, both. The tasks stretch out from the gray slough before dawn to the guttered taper of night. At fifteen, I have taken up the burdens of a woman, and have come to feel I am one. Furthermore, I am glad of it. For I now no longer have the time to fall into such sins as I committed as a girl, when hours that were my own to spend spread before me like a gift. 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. Every inlet and outcrop of this place, I love. We are taught early here to see Nature as a foe to be subdued. But I came, by stages, to worship it. You could say that for me, this island and her bounties became the first of my false gods, the original sin that begot so much idolatry.
Now, here, in the scant days I have left before Caleb comes to us, I have decided to set down my spiritual diary, and give an accounting for those months when my heart sat so loose from God. I have gathered what scraps of paper I could scavenge from my brother’s store, and I intend to use whatever moments I can eke out before each day’s weariness claims me. My hand is unlovely, since father did not school me in writing, but as this relation is for my own eyes, it makes no mind. Since I cannot say, yet, whether I will find the courage to stand in meeting some day and deliver an accounting of myself, this will have to do. In my affliction I have besought the Lord but I have had no sign that I am saved. When I look at my hands and wrists, marred by the marks of small burns from cook pots and flying embers, every red weal or white pucker brings to my mind’s eye that eternal fire, and the writhing masses of the damned, among whom I must expect to spend eternity.
God alone ordains the damned and the saved and naught that I set down on these pages can change that. But since Caleb is to come here, trailing about him the smoke of those heathen fires and the scent of those wild, vision-filled hours, I need to be clear in my own mind and honest in my heart where I stand with regard to such matters, so that I can truly put them from me. I must do this for his sake, as well as for my own. I know that father sets great store in Caleb. He sees him, more than any other here, as a great hope to lead his people. Certainly Caleb seems to want this also; no one toils at his book more diligently; no one has gathered such a rich harvest of knowledge in the scant seasons he has had to study these things. But I also know this to be true: Caleb’s soul is stretched like the rope in a tug o’ war, between my father and his own uncle, the pawaaw. Just as my father has his hopes, so too does that sorcerer. Caleb will lead his people, I am sure of it. But in which direction? Of that, I am not in the least bit certain.
In writing a historical novel such as Caleb's Crossing, what is the balance between detective work and pure imagination? Could you briefly describe your research and writing process?
I like to follow the line of fact as far as it leads, so I do a vast amount of research. But I always make sure that the story drives it, which means I wait for the narrative to tell me what it is I need to know. So I write for a while, then go to archives or to interview experts, then I come back and incorporate what I have learned into the fiction. I don't always follow the factssometimes the story needs to veer away from them for a while. And that's why I always include an afterword, to set out the truth as far it is known and to show where my novel has deviated from it.
Your first novel, Year of Wonders, also takes place in the seventeenth century. What is it about this time period you find so inspiring? Did any of the information you gained researching that novel help your work on Caleb's Crossing?
It is a rich period to me because the modern mind is emerging from the medieval mind, and you can sense the struggle. When you read some of the writings of people who lived in the mid-seventeenth century, they are recognizableyou understand their predicaments, you get their jokes. Yet at other times you encounter minds formed by a worldview quite alien to our own. It's the time Newton is shaping modern scientific thought, and yet witches are still being burned at the stake. I was familiar with all this from Year of Wonders. Anna Frith's small community was largely puritanthe kind of people who might have taken ship for the new England colonies if they'd had the means.
The relationship between the white settlers and Native American population has always been a difficult one, and the creation of the Massachusetts colony still has political ramifications today. As someone who didn't grow up in the United States, what is your relationship to these events? Are there comparable events in Australian history?
Australia too has a brutal history of dispossession of its Aboriginal inhabitants. But as I was researching the book, I was astonished to discover that I have a direct ancestor who almost certainly knew Caleb. My some-number-of-greats grandfather was Ephriam Cutter, a glazier in Cambridge in the 1660s. His sister was the wife of Elijah Corlett, the schoolmaster who prepared Caleb for Harvard. So I had a closer relationship to these events than I had ever imagined.
As you note in the afterword, the facts of Caleb's life are barely known. What was it about his story that made you think it had the potential to be a novel?
The questions: Who was this remarkable young scholar? How did he get to Harvard? What was Harvard like in the 1660s? And on, and on. As soon as I learned of Caleb, I was intrigued, and I found that I couldn't stop thinking about him and speculating on what his experience might have been.
Both Caleb and Bethia are placed in set roles by society because of his race and because of her gender. In looking at their respective journeys in the novel, would it be fair to say that Caleb's struggle is to exist between two worlds while Bethia's struggle is to try to flourish within one?
Yes, I think that is a very apt way to describe it.
As a narrator, Bethia creates a warm and intimate relationship with the reader, despite the formal structure and vocabulary of her seventeenth-century English. How were you able to develop such a unique and historically accurate voice without compromising the reader's ability to relate to her?
It took a long while to feel assured about her voice because there are no female diaries extant from that period to draw upon, to prime the pump, as it were. But in the end, after reading what I could in verbatim court records, letters, wills, and other documents, she did begin to speak to me. After that it's a kind of channeling that goes on. I just hear the voice very clearly.
Bethia mentions being inspired by the accomplishments of the poet Anne Bradstreet. This is not a name most readers might recognize. Were you familiar with her work prior to writing the novel?
Yes, I was because I love poetry and read it voraciously. She is North America's first published poet, after all. She deserves to be celebrated!
While we get hints from Bethia as to what she's like in her old age, how do you see the rest of her life progressing after the events of the novel? What could Caleb have accomplished had his story not ended so early?
I think I have let Bethia speak for me on this. He might have had an immense impact. The fact that Thomas Danforth, who was an esteemed jurist and political leader, had charge of him at the time of his death is highly significant. Danforth would not have been involved unless Caleb was considered a promising young man. And Caleb's own achievements as a scholar support that view.
As a writer, your work includes both fiction and nonfiction, covering seventeenth-century America to modern life in the Middle East. As a reader, are your interests as broad or do your tastes remain more constant? What is your favorite book?
At this moment in my life I would have to say Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I do read widely, including children's and young adult literature, which I read to and with my sons. I admire these books a great deal because they understand the virtues of great plotting and the fundamental importance of story.
What are the different emotional costs and rewards that come with writing fiction as opposed to journalism? Do you feel that your strengths as a journalist are the same as your strengths as a novelist?
To be quite frank I think my greatest strength as a journalist was being able to talk my way into tough situations and put up with uncomfortable conditions for weeks on end. If you could actually show upbe there for the coup or the firefight or the disasterthat was 90 percent of it. The events were so dramatic, the human predicaments so poignant and tragic, it didn't actually require much skill to write about them.
What is your next project?
Another historical novel. And that's all I have to say about it at this point.
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