Native American and Puritan
Cultures in the New World, a Book Club Discussion
By Neely Kennedy
In the LHJ October
book club pick, Caleb’s Crossing, historical
novelist Geraldine Brooks writes about the conflicts between 17th century Martha’s
Vineyard inhabitants, newly-settled Puritans and Native Americans. The contrasting
beliefs and customs between the two cultures are told as experienced by the narrator,
Bethia Mayfield, a preacher’s daughter who yearns for learning but is confined
by the oppressive gender rules of the time period. In secret she forms a friendship
with Caleb, the son of the Wampanoag Chief, who crosses over into her “civilized”
world also seeking the power of language and learning, and who later becomes one
of the first Native Americans to matriculate from Harvard.
In Bethia’s diary, she privately reveals observations about the contrasts
between the two worlds; the raw beauty of Martha’s Vineyard versus the mainland,
Cambridge town; the stark gender contrasts between men and women’s roles;
and the hypocrisy of religious dogma in the quest to convert the ”salvages”
during the European colonial invasion. Below are excerpts from Brook’s book
probing history for the answer to this question…
Savage or Civilized?
The Ritual: When Bethia first witnesses a Wampanoag ritual she is moved by the
wild freedom of the ritual.
“Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. So I had been instructed all
my life. Still, it was to those strange gods that I wanted to cry out with the same
abandon as the pawaaw. Time stopped its relentless forward march as I crouched in
the scrub, rocking in the tempo of the drums. Finally, I threw back my head and
let the break from my body speak for me, in a sigh of surrender to some unknown
thing of power and beauty, adding my breath to the prayers filling the wide sky.”
Thieves in the Night: Breaking treaty with the Indians, the settlers steal precious
whale oil on a forbidden side of the island.
“I felt disgust at the behavior of those all about me, our low willingness
to steal and deceive even as we preened and boasted of our godly superiority.”
Sacred Fish: Bethia is disgusted by the actions of her people when she recalls
Caleb’s sacred handling of a fish.
“As I walked away, I heard the men’s voices shouting in course merriment
even as they hewed at the whales living flesh. I thought of the shining bass in
my friend’s hands, the raised rock, and his gentle words of thanks to the
creature. This no longer seemed outlandish to me, but fitting and somehow decent.
The idea that this heathen youth should show more refinement that we in such a matter
only added to my leaden mood.”
Buy land, they’re not making it anymore—Mark Twain
"But what I have learned since tells me that neither Makepeace nor father truly
grasped the root of the matter, which is that we see this world through entirely
different eyes. When father had first come to negotiate for some land here, the
sonquem had laughed at the notion that anyone might 'own land'."
Dance with the Devil:
“All my life I had been told that dance was the devil’s business. Only
whores, the daughters of Salome, danced, or so I had been instructed. But there
was nothing lewd or wanton here. The women’s movements were stately, dignified,
“I had come to think that the Wampanoag, who dealt so kindly with their babes,
were the wiser than we in this. What profit was there in requiring little ones to
behave like adults? Why bridle their spirits and struggle to break their God-given
nature before they had the least understanding of what was wanted of them?”
Rule of Fear
“You come here to disturb my rest with your tales of hell and damnation, but
your tales are hollow threats, meant to scare us out of our customs and make us
stand in awe of you. I will not hear your words.”
Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself
“It may be your father loved me, as you say. But not until I cut my hair.
He had a boiling zeal to see it gone. My ‘barbarous deformity,’ he called
it.” The smile faded. “Truly I do not know I was such a sinner until
he taught me to hate my hair.” His face was a grave now, his brow creased.
“So many things I loved, I have had to learn to hate. And it all started in
this place with you, Storm Eyes.”
“Well, I thought. You have done it my friend. It has cost you your home, and
your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man
may say the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable. Here, in this hall, you stand,
the incontestible argument, the nagat respondens.”
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