Caleb’s Crossing

Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing
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Caleb’s Crossing

Geraldine Brooks

A richly imagined novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller, PEOPLE OF THE BOOK. ‘CALEB’S CROSSING … reconfirms Geraldine Brooks’s reputation as one of our most supple and insightful novelists’ NEW YORK tIMES When Bethia Mayfield, a spirited 12 year old living in the rigid confines of a 17th-century English Puritan settlement, meets Caleb, the young son of a Wampanoag chieftain, the two forge a secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other.As Bethia’s father, a Calvinist minister, tries to convert the Wampanoag to his own strict faith, he awakens the wrath of the medicine men. Caleb becomes a prize in a contest between old ways and new, eventually taking his place at Harvard, studying alongside the sons of the colonial elite. Fighting for a voice in a society that requires her silence, Bethia becomes entangled in Caleb’s struggle to navigate the intellectual and cultural shoals that divide their two worlds. From the few facts that survive of Caleb’s extraordinary life as the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks creates a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.

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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