Today marks the publication date for Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, the subject of our May cover story. Telling the tale of an early part of American history, the book follows a young Native American boy who becomes a Harvard graduate—in the 1660s.
The book is being published at a time when Wampanoag culture is on the rise again. Not only will Tiffany Smalley, the first Martha’s Vineyard Wampanoag since Caleb be graduating from Harvard this spring, there’s also been a resurgence of the language.
“A young native linguist named Jessie Little Doe Baird got her linguistics degree at MIT and has been working on a dictionary of the language and language classes,” Brooks told me. “Her child is the first native speaker in several generations and there are a number of people now who are fluent. She got a MacArthur Genius grant for her work in the language reclamation. . . . it really is of great interest to everyone on the island seeing this come back. When the tribe’s medicine man died the year before last, the language was heard on the cliffs at his graveside ceremony, probably for the first time in very many years.”
Brooks and I went on to talk about the importance of language, and how the way it is constructed can shape or reveal things about a society. “I lived in the Middle East for a while and Arabic is structured so differently,” she said. “The way the root words have developed give you such insight into the thinking of people. Maybe if you’re a native speaker, you’re not aware of all the echoes of the words that share a common root, but you know, it really struck me that [Arabic has] a word for ‘child’ that relates to things like ‘dawn’ and ‘soft clay’ but also ‘one that arrives at an inopportune moment,’ ” she laughed.
In Caleb’s Crossing, the way that Bethia describes her discovery of the Wampanoag language echoes these thoughts.
Over time I had come to grasp that the chief principle of their grammar is whether a thing to them is possessed of an animating soul. How they determine this is outlandish to our way of thinking, so profligate are they in giving out souls to all manner of things. A canoe paddle is animate, becuase it causes something else to move. Even a humble onion has, in their view, a soul, since it causes action—pulling tears from the eyes.
Will you be picking up Caleb’s Crossing this week?