I Kept Wondering What Bethia Would Do Next
Geraldine Brooks' new novel, Caleb's Crossing, is based loosely on the scant information available on the real life Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to receive a degree from Harvard in the mid-1600s. Brooks fills in the details of his life as a work of fiction, but the tone and depth of information makes the fictional account feel entirely plausible.
Creating this feeling of immediacy and truth is the fact that the story is written as the diary of Bethia, the daughter of a Puritan minister on Martha's vineyard. The diary format allows Bethia to interject her thoughts and opinions of the religious daily life, and her years spent side by side with the Native American "salvages" on the island.
Bethia befriends Caleb, the young nephew of the local tribe leader. Together they explore the island and learn each other’s languages and culture. Caleb leaves his people behind to study with the settlers, and ultimately is accepted at Harvard University’s Indian School. Caleb’s transition from a life in the wilderness to a life of study serves as a counterpoint for Bethia’s own interest in pursuing an education, which cannot be fulfilled due to the clearly defined gender roles of the Puritan age.
I admit that for me, this book was a little difficult to get into. The language was headier and denser than what I’ve been used to reading lately. I’d have to pause once in a while to translate an antiquated term to clarify some small meaning. However, once I was pulled into the story, this bothered me less as I learned more about the daily lives of the settlers and their Native American neighbors. (As a knitter, I loved the details of spinning wool and hand knit hose!) I wanted to find out what Bethia would do next. Would she accept the indenture at the school in Cambridge? Would she ever be able to get out of it? Which life path would she take? Would she ever return to her beloved island? Once the story unfolded, I couldn’t help but keep reading to find out. I was not disappointed. Despite the slow start, I enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing and would recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction.
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