Monday, March 20, 2017
Photo: cover of the paperback book, from its Google.com page.
Very, very well-written account of a young girl's life on Martha's Vineyard and in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1660s. Though the book is more known to be about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, it is really about this girl and her Puritan family. Narrated by Bethia, the book is a comparison between her life as an Other, and that of a native Wampanoag named Cheeshahteaumauk, called Caleb by Bethia's family after his Indian family dies of disease, probably smallpox. (He dies of disease, too, of consumption, not long after he became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.) This is a book, like all her others, to read and enjoy, and to learn from and emulate if you want to be a writer. I can someday hope to become nearly as good--though that is doubtful--but I cannot become better.
Bethia loves life on the island, despite its hardships. Let me rephrase: She loves the island more than she loves her life on it. Her chores and responsibilities are endless. She loses her parents and her younger sibling, all three in horrible ways. She can read and write and she has intelligence and opinions--all bad in 1660s Puritan Massachusetts, especially on the island. Her daily life, with and without her best friend Caleb, and her family, are equally interesting and distressing to read about.
She follows Caleb and her older brother to Harvard. Her brother is next in line to lead the family and to become a preacher like their father. Except, he's not intelligent, not good in the ways of leadership or human nature. He can't read as well as she, and he can't learn the Bible's languages as well as she. In fact, she's a helluva lot smarter than he is, and they both know it. In fact, Caleb, the "salvage," the other and the lesser in that time, is also smarter than he is in all of these things, and he knows that, too. Despite all this, Bethia goes to Harvard with them because it is her indentured servitude that will pay for her brother's education there, so that he can become more in their society than she can, though everyone knows she deserves it more. She steals a bit of an education while she can, eavesdropping on lessons, learning from the other students, etc., but it is not a life she is destined to overtly benefit from.
In lesser hands, Bethia would fall in love with Caleb, and run away with him, and such, but these are not ordinary hands, and she does not do this. Bethia as a child was confused about her true feelings for Caleb, and maybe she did have what we would call a crush on him for a few years, but overall she outgrows that, and they become perhaps even closer, a brother and sister that would have continued had he not died. She leaves with another man, rather happily, from that Harvard disaster, and lives in Italy for a time, before she comes back and sees Caleb in his final days. The book is told in three parts, the last of which is a bit more sad than perhaps it needed to be, but who am I to judge? It's all enthralling. You'll feel like you're there, and you'll care about everyone.
Brooks clearly is painting a parallel between Bethia's life in 1660s Puritan Massachusetts and that of women in 2000s America. She does this in every work, and continues to do so here. As usual, it is not overt, or heavily done, and you don't feel preached to. This outlook, again as usual, enhances the story and does not detract from it. In fact, that cultural comment is not the story. As always, her story is her story. Bethia and Caleb, two others in a career-long character list of strong others, are her vehicles to tell this story. They themselves are not the story, per se. This is a distinction that all writers trying to say something should understand: your characters tell the story, but your characters are not the story. They drive it, of course; the story is not a river and they the mere floaters. But the story is the tide, and the characters either swim with it, or they swim against it. Brooks is excellent--here, and especially in March, her Pulitzer-winner--at showing the tides of the times she sets her stories in. It is one of the many things she does masterfully.
So this book is a story of the time, but also of our time. There is an other of every time, as we see today. I suspect maybe a female of African-American or Mexican descent is writing a good book about that as I type this.