By Geraldine Brooks
Completed November 17, 2011
When Geraldine Brooks moved to her home in Martha’s Vineyard, she stumbled across a map of the island that showed the native Wampanoag people – and learned that one of them, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, was the first Native American graduate of Harvard College in 1665. This little historical fact spawned her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing.
Brooks opted to tell the story through the eyes of young Bethia, the granddaughter of the founders of Martha’s Vineyard and a devout Calvinist. Bethia, which means “servant,” was true to her name – she served her family, her faith and later her family’s legacy by taking care of Caleb and fellow Native American student Joel. When only 12, Bethia met Caleb in the forest, and they forged a friendship that lasted throughout Caleb’s life. She taught him English and Christianity; Caleb taught her about tolerance and his own faith. It was these early exchanges that set the foundation for Caleb’s academic success later in his life.
Bethia’s character is not based on a historical figure, but Brooks, through her detailed research, illustrated what life would be like for a young woman in 1600’s Massachusetts. Bethia was smart, but her religion permitted her from being formally educated. As a woman, she was concerned a commodity, used by her family to help get her less-than-brilliant brother into an academy. It was hard to read Bethia’s suppression as both a woman and scholar, but Brooks could do no else with her. It was an unfortunate sign of the times.
I love Brooks’ writing style and eye for historical detail – both of which are evident in Caleb’s Crossing. Admittedly, though, I was not as enraptured by this story as I was with Brooks’ earlier books. The plot didn’t move quickly enough, and I wanted to know more about Caleb and less about Bethia. I skimmed through some pages in search of some kind of “action” to propel the plot. I found it in bits and pieces, but overall, Caleb’s Crossing was a slow-moving story.
If you haven’t read Geraldine Brooks, start with her other books and delight in her writing. Save Caleb’s Crossing for a lazy day by the fire.