Caleb’s Crossing Themes, Motifs, Symbols

Geraldine Brooks

Caleb’s Crossing

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Caleb’s Crossing Themes, Motifs, Symbols

Listening is an important skill that Bethia learns from her mother. Listening is a way to overcome some of the challenges involved in being a woman, as listening provides you with information that can empower you. For Bethia’s mother, this information takes the form of gossip. For Bethia, it takes the form of knowledge typically associated with formal learning, such as Latin, Hebrew, and so forth.

Names are important in this novel. Bethia’s name, for example, means servant, and indeed she becomes a servant for a time. Caleb’s Indian name, Cheeshahteaumuck, means “hated one.” This could refer to the way in which he lives his life apart from his people, or it could simply be a way of warding off evil spirits. Bethia learns that names can have multiple meanings and that these meanings are filtered through the experience of the people who gives the names.

The relationships between the indigenous people are problematic in this novel. By the novel’s end, a war has broken out between the two populations. Throughout the story, smallpox transmitted by the settlers ravages the Indians, contracts offered by the settlers deprived the indigenous people of their land. Bethia’s settlement, and her family’s relationship to Caleb and Joel, does suggest that there was at one moment in history a possibility for a better relationship between European settlers and the Native Americans.

This novel confronts us with the fact that untimely death was common in the colonies. These deaths of loved ones and friends gave shape to the lives of the survivors, as these events mark the tragic pivotal moments in one’s own life. This was a radically different time in history from our own, when a harsh winter or shipwreck could wipe out nearly an entire family.

This book poses a stark divide between the city and the countryside. While life in the rural areas could be hazardous and difficult, life in the cramped, dirty, disease-infested cities such as Boston was often more so. Life in a place like Bethia’s island could be ideal and enjoyable. On the other hand, life in the city would be necessary for…

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