Caleb’s Crossing

Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing
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Caleb’s Crossing

Geraldine Brooks

In 1665, a young man from Martha’s Vineyard became the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. From the few facts that survive of this extraordinary life, Brooks creates a luminous tale of passion and belief, magic and adventure. The voice of Caleb’s Crossing belongs to Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny island settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. Possessed of a restless spirit and a curious mind, Bethia slips the bounds of her rigid society to explore the island’s glistening beaches and observe its native inhabitants. At twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s father is Great Harbor’s minister, who feels called to convert the Wampanoag to his own strict Calvinism. He awakens the wrath of the medicine men, against whose magic he must test his faith in a high-stakes battle that may cost his life, and his very soul. Caleb becomes a prize in this contest between old ways and new, eventually taking his place at Harvard, studying Latin and Greek alongside the sons of the colonial elite. Bethia also finds herself in Cambridge at the behest of her imperious elder brother. As she fights for a voice in a society that requires her silence, she also becomes entangled in Caleb’s struggle to navigate the intellectual and cultural shoals that divide their two cultures. What becomes of these characters - the triumphs and turmoil they endure in embracing their new destinies - is the subject of this riveting and intensely observed novel. Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha’s Vineyard and to the intimate spaces of the human heart.

Review

Geraldine Brooks’s great skill is taking small historical moments and writing them large, using them to create a bigger picture. In 1665, a young man became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Very little is known about this man and so Brooks has created a life and world for him: Caleb.

The story is told through the eyes of a strong-willed and intelligent woman, Bethia, the daughter of a preacher and settler on the island now known as Martha’s Vineyard. Bethia derives from the Hebrew and means ‘daughter of God’. The relationship between the indigenous people of Martha’s Vineyard and the settlers, though largely peaceful, is not without tensions and suspicion. The settlers have attempted to act fairly in their acquisition of land, at least by English standards, but the concept of land ownership is different in Indian culture; the evangelical Christianity also brings its tensions. As a girl, Bethia meets and befriends a young Indian man who she names Caleb. Caleb teaches Bethia about his world and in turn Bethia teaches him about hers. For these bright young people, there is a willing and productive transfer of knowledge that grows into a strong and lasting friendship.

Brooks tackles big issues in this book and gives them a universality that is not confined to the period it covers. Among them are the issues of women’s rights, conflict between cultures, affirmative action and the nature of god and religion. Big stuff, but Brooks does it through the telling of a fascinating and rich story. Her recreation of this seventeenth-century New World is so very believable; this is her great skill, and what makes the story so compelling and enjoyable. Although ostensibly about Caleb, this story is essentially about Bethia and the way she interacts with her world. We are fortunate that Brooks has made her such an engaged and astute observer.

Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings.

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