In her fourth historical novel, Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks
focuses on the early days of English colonization of the New World. Caleb’s Crossing begins in 1660 in
what is now Martha’s Vineyard, where 12-year-old Bethia (“servant”)
Mayfield keeps house for her Calvinist minister father, older brother,
and baby sister after her mother’s death. Bethia’s family left the
Massachusetts Bay Colony over disagreements with its rigidity, but the
Mayfield household is by no means liberal. Bethia seriously suspects
that her mother’s death was God’s punishment for her surreptitious
friendship with an island Wampanoag Indian boy, Cheeshahteaumauck
(Caleb). Groomed for domesticity—as were all women of her time—Bethia
is denied the instruction her less intelligent brother gets to prepare
him for the newly established Harvard College.
Bethia is a fictional character, but Caleb is based on a real person, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Few details are known about Caleb, but Brooks has imagined a complex character who crosses into white society in order to help his people in the territorial conflict he foresees. The stories of Caleb and his Wampanoag friend Joel, who enter Harvard together, are sad, foreshadowing what would happen to their people. Bethia’s story—that of a young woman wanting more than her lot—is more hopeful, as she acquires an education despite being denied instruction, listening to young men’s lessons behind doors as she goes about her chores.
Brooks, a former journalist, is a fine storyteller. Her knowledge of 17th-century New England beliefs, customs, and language makes for a feeling of really entering a different time. Yet readers will still find the story relevant down to the present, knowing what happened to Native Americans.
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