I recently tore through both Caleb’s Crossing and The Poisonwood Bible. The first is Geraldine Brooks’ latest, published last year. I’ve read all of her fiction; her Pulitzer-prize-winning March is one of my favorite books.
The second is perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s most well known work, which I’ve never picked up before. Last year I inherited my grandmother’s copy, which made the reading all the sweeter, knowing that she once enjoyed it. It’s a hardcover, so I assume she bought it shortly after it was published 15 years ago. One of her familiar address labels is affixed on the inside flap of the dust jacket.
I just happened to read them in succession (I’m trying to read more fiction), and they dovetail nicely. They’re both set against backgrounds of historical events, and the narrators of both are daughters of American clergymen bent on converting native cultures to Christianity (the Wampanoag on the island that would later become Martha’s Vineyard in Brooks’ novel, and the Congolese in Kingsolver’s). Sadly, though the settings are separated by 400 years, the Price sisters in the 1960s are offered just about as little opportunity as Bethia Mayfield in the 17th century: All of the girls hear a constant refrain about the uselessness of educating women. But in both tales, these women are much smarter, shrewder, braver, and more interesting than their naive missionary fathers.
Caleb’s Crossing is an ill-fitting name for Brooks’ work. Though it’s inspired by the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, the story belongs wholly to Bethia Mayfield, who achieves the book’s more lasting crossing: from the narrow realm of women’s chores to the limitless world of men’s education, from Puritanism to Wampanoag culture and back again, from her sister’s caretaker to scullery maid to wife and mother. She befriends the eponymous Caleb, the heir apparent to the Wampanoag who believes that being fully a part of the Mayfields’ white, Christian world represents the best chance for him to ensure the survival of his people. Caleb studies English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew indefatigably (yes, I was jealous), gains admission to Harvard, and graduates with honors, doing better than many of his white counterparts. But the price he pays is extremely high, and the reader knows that all of his efforts ultimately will not save the Wampanoag. Through the plot’s twists, Bethia is able to accompany him to the mainland, and it is she who is more successfully changed for the experience.
One of the hardest things as a modern reader is to fathom the attitudes of those who believe themselves to be “civilizing” cultures, remaking others in their own image. I felt unspeakably sad reading about the changes Bethia describes that Caleb undergoes as he moves from robust hunter to sallow scholar. The same process in historical fiction such as this and other books of the genre (like Things Fall Apart) makes me, to be blunt, hate white people. The story of the Congolese in The Poisonwood Bible is made only slightly less painful by the fact that the village of Kilanga is largely immune to Reverend Price’s proselytizing.
It helps that Price is something of a ridiculous character (in contrast to Mayfield’s earnest and ethical attempts to engage the Wampanoag): His daughters note his mispronunciation of the Lingala word bangala, which, depending on how it’s said, can mean “dearly beloved” or “poisonwood tree,” leaving Price to preach week after week that Jesus is the local tree that can cause intense pain and even death. But Price is lucky to have this gaffe to humanize him, because he is otherwise a vile character. His cultural arrogance and condescension are insufferable, and his complete inflexibility, even in the face of danger because of the country’s unrest (the political turmoil of the post-colonial era), rips apart his family. I spent most of the book hoping for him a violent death. It’s his daughters, who take turns talking about their experience in Congo and afterwards, who charm and delight, even in the midst of their tragedies.