Caleb's Crossing: Riveting and Believable
By Mille Fiori Favoriti on April 05, 2011
In the early 1660s, on the windswept dunes of Noepe, an island we now know as Martha’s Vineyard, the preadolescent Bethia Mayfield meets the young son of a Native American leader of the native Wampanoag tribe, and their lives would forever become entwined. In her new historical fiction novel, Caleb's Crossing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks masterfully takes her readers back to a time when life was austere and personal tragedies and sacrifices were an expected part of life in a new untamed land. The novel is based on a scant historical fact, that Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag chieftain’s son, was so expertly versed in Latin and Greek that he would become the first Native American to graduate Harvard College in 1665.
The story is narrated by the fictional Bethia, who is the daughter of a Calvinist minister, one of the English settlers who fled to the island to escape the brutality of strict Puritanism in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Brooks imagines that the conversion and education of Native Americans would have been a priority of such a minister, and weaves her tale around the Mayfield family. Women at that time were not usually educated, but Bethia acquires knowledge surreptitiously by being able to listen and absorb lessons on the Wampanoag language given to her father by an early native convert. She also became sufficient in Latin and Greek through the lessons her father gave to her older brother. Unlike her brother she is quick-witted, and she became advanced in languages and beyond anyone’s knowledge. Independent in nature, she loved to explore the wilds of the island and while clamming on a new shore she comes upon Cheeshahteaumauk. Her knowledge of his language intrigues him. They are curious about each other’s customs and begin a clandestine friendship. He renames her “Storm Eyes” and she renames him Caleb after the Biblical companion of Moses in the wilderness. She teaches him to speak English and to read, he teaches her the ways and mysteries of his people. Eventually Bethia’s father discovers Caleb and his abilities and brings him to live at his house to further educate him and convert him to Christianity. Caleb and Bethia’s path remain entwined as they dramatically cross into each other’s cultures. It is not without cost to both, however, as prejudices against learned women and Native Americans were the norm at the time.
I found Caleb’s Crossing a riveting, believable and well researched novel. Bethia was a intriguing protagonist and I admired her determination and sense of adventure. While many of the hardships in the book made me sad, I was very interested in wanting to know what would eventually happen to Bethia and Caleb. My only criticism of the book was that I would have liked more development of the character of Caleb and more dialogue between him and his people. I am astounded to think of the real Caleb’s ability to cross from a life of native traditions into a life of books and learning. His was a tale worth telling and Geraldine Brooks did a remarkable job. I highly recommend this novel.
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