Stories Unbound

It’s not only the stories that matter, but what they are made of: pages that fall from a book with no spine, or the sheets of a newspaper coming apart in the breeze. There’s postcards and letters crossing the airspace above me, and the tales that travel far on the lips of a city. There are stories of mine that I cannot own, and stories of yours that you may lose on the tide.

There’s the stories you made and the memories you lost; there’s the dreams I once had that now seem so real. There’s the journeys we shared that become their own narratives. There is one unfurling on the current, another unsure of itself in the wind. There is one drifting across treetops, and another curving silver on the roads of the city. They are stories unbound and they come from all over. They have mountains to cross and rivers to ford, they have so far to go – and yet not far at all, for they are all here, waiting to be found.

There are some who find and catch these stories and make them into journalism; for others it is history; for still others it is fiction, poetry, film, theatre, dance, music, and so on . . . The boundaries between the expressions of stories grow thin these days, and rightly so, for stories do not choose one way of expression and remain there cocooned in their form.

Anna Krien is a journalist, and the author of Into the Woods. I met her a few months ago, and she seems quite unbound by definitions and genres. She told me that she sees no reason why one cannot be both or several: a journalist, a poet, a writer of fiction. And I felt inspired, for I realised I had been restraining the stories I had, trying to be just a journalist, or just a writer of fiction.

Geraldine Brooks is another who appears unwilling to allow the stories that she meets to be restrained forever in one genre or another. The material she gathered as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East later became her non-fiction work, Nine Parts of Desire. Yet it also made its way into the end of her fictional work, Year of Wonders. In a sense, these stories have taken on many shapes through the one writer and they have had many lives. In Caleb’s Crossing, as with Year of Wonders, her stories are not bound by the limitations of history or by the passing of centuries.

So let the stories come in any way they will, through words or experience, from near or far. Let them be bound only by ethics and not by genre or tradition or habit, so that they may take whichever form of expression they choose.

This post was written in response to the theme of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, ‘Stories unbound’.

Book review: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

The latest novel by journalist and author Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing (2011), is aptly named, for it is full of crossings: the crossing between life and death, between island and mainland, between faiths, between one life and another. Yet these crossings are by no means restricted to the character of Caleb.

Caleb’s Crossing is based on the few facts known about the first Native American student, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, to graduate from Harvard College in the 1600s. On this scant historical record, Brooks has built a novel that revolves not around this young man, but around the fictional character of Bethia Mayfield, the novel’s narrator.

Growing up in the Puritan settlement of Great Harbour on the island that is now Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, Bethia is the daughter of a missionary minister. She is steeped in an environment of conflicting cultures, for she is at the coalface of one culture’s encroachment onto the physical and spiritual territory of another.

As a girl, Bethia is not allowed to take part in the lessons that her father gives to her older brother, even though she is brighter and more interested in ‘scholarly matters’ than he is. This discrimination rankles, but her rebelliousness is tempered by its conflict with the teachings of her religion. She learns in spite of her exclusion from formal education and, listening in on her father’s attempts to learn the local language of the Wampanoag people, she becomes fluent in Wampanaontoaonk.

It is because of her language skills that she strikes up a secret friendship with Caleb, the son of one of the island’s chieftains, and thus their two cultures meet and each begins to influence the other.

Later in the book Bethia asks herself if it would have been better for Caleb had she never met him, if she had never taught him English or shown him a Bible, so that he might have lived as his ancestors had before him. She makes much of the fact that she has changed his life, but he also changes hers, challenging her faith and further making her question the path that her father and brother have laid out ahead of her.

The story is powerfully told, achieving what could be seen as a key aim of the historical novel – evoking a sense of a world that is long past and that is utterly foreign to the reader. It does this not only through creating a unique voice for a fictional young woman who is constrained by her gender, her religion and her times, but also by not neglecting the reality of day-to-day existence.

Life in the 17th century is hard work, and Brooks does not neglect this in her storytelling – there is the endless drudgery of domestic work for the women, the challenges faced by settlers in a new colony, and the consistent influence of religion on every part of their lives. There is also the continued presence of death in the Mayfield family – at first, I wondered if this element was overdone, but its purpose in the shaping of Bethia’s story becomes clearer towards the end of the novel.

While Bethia pushes boundaries and in doing so is a character who readers of the twentieth century can easily identify with, she ultimately remains within the confines of her own world view, and does not stray too far from the path that her culture has shaped for her. She is unable to attend college with the men in spite of her intelligence, and she remains, throughout her life, a product of Puritanism. Nonetheless she manages to live in a way that does not leave her downtrodden under the boots of men. Her story seems, because of this, both realistic and uplifting.

Alongside Bethia’s struggle against the confines of her role as a female is the clash of cultures that is going on all around her. In Caleb’s Crossing, the Native American culture on the island is irrevocably changed in less than two generations. The Wampanoag’s spirituality has been replaced with Christianity. It is frightful to be confronted with the complete alteration of a culture in such a short space of time, and the novel allows no easy exit from the imagining of this reality.

Bethia aids and abets in this change through her friendship with Caleb, and so the novel offers no easy moral answers. This unusual young woman may be intelligent, kind and fair, seeing the Wampanoag people as equals and battling to be sure of her own faith, but in the end she does not become part of their culture – they become part of hers.

This review originally appeared on upstart.