Piecing Together History in Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

In 1660, in what is now Martha’s Vineyard, a young girl named Bethia Mayfield is coming of age in Puritan society in Geraldine Brooks new novel Caleb's Crossing.

Bethia is a minister’s daughter, and the caretaker of her family, living in a world where opportunities for girls are few and far between. While exploring her island, she happens to meet Caleb, the son of the Wampanoag chief, and begins a friendship with him. Her father, in an effort to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity, begins teaching Caleb, discovering his talent in Latin. From this, Caleb’s path takes him to Cambridge, to study at schools among the colonists. Bethia’s journey leads to Cambridge as well but as an indentured housekeeper at the school Caleb attends. From this position Bethia is able to watch Caleb as he crosses from his roots into the colonists’ world while finding her own place.

Caleb’s Crossing is told from Bethia’s viewpoint, in a unique perspective as the woman in a male dominated culture. It is her story, her reach into a world she cannot be a part of due to her sex. Her voice tells the story in a way that understands his dilemma. Both she and Caleb are on the outskirts of Puritan society -- a woman with the desire to learn what men know and an Indian boy stepping into European culture, not fully fitting in, because of their stations in life.

Caleb himself is based on a real man, the first Indian student to graduate from Harvard in 1665, as is Joel, his friend and fellow student. Only parts of their actual stories are known, but Geraldine Brooks does a wonderful job piecing together what history we have with a fictional setting that depicts life in Martha’s Vineyard in the later 1600s, along with the struggles Caleb would have gone through with the European settlers and his own people. As a reader, one has to sympathize with Caleb and Bethia, trapped in a world that isn't truly theirs.

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