Caleb's Crossing Gives Tender Insight into an Early American Culture Clash

BlogHer Review

In her newest novel of historical fiction, Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks plucks a thin strand of history and weaves it into a rich tapestry of early colonial life amid a small band of Puritans, pioneers and Native Americans on the island that would come to be known as Martha’s Vineyard. In 1665, Harvard College did indeed graduate its first Native American from Martha’s Vineyard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck. However, there is little surviving information about his background and the personal journey that brought him to the esteemed college during a time when Indians were deemed “salvages” or heathens, and racism, fear and misunderstanding heavily tainted the colonies.

It is upon fragments of information, that Brooks crafts her rich and vivid storyline of a forbidden friendship between the narrator, Bethia Wakefield, the headstrong daughter of the settlement’s Puritan minister, and Caleb, the son of the native Wampanoag chieftain. Bethia possesses a hunger for knowledge and a restless spirit, two disadvantages for a young woman of this era, who was expected to concern herself only with domestic pursuits and matters of purity within the confines of her father’s and brother’s directives. For girls, elementary education and reading was acceptable to a point, but too much was believed to addle the delicate female mind and instill knowledge of things unsuitable.

Bethia chafed against this discrimination, and she deliberately hoarded knowledge by listening in on her older brother’s lessons. She even learned the native language of the Wampanoag Indians as her father laboriously tried to teach the difficult words to her brother.

Under the pretense of visiting neighbors or gathering edibles, she explored the isolated beaches and forests of the island, where she struck up a forbidden friendship with Caleb. At first, the young Indian was intrigued that Bethia could speak his language, but over time a strong, brotherly and protective bond forms between the two. It seems that Bethia as a woman, and Caleb as an Indian, are both striving to survive in an oppressive culture pitted against them.

Caleb’s Crossing details the heart-breaking story of Caleb’s difficult crossing from one culture to another. It chronicles the family and freedoms he left behind in order to adapt to the colonial culture that he somehow knew would triumph over his own culture, and the harsh deprivation, discrimination and loneliness that came as a result.

When Bethia’s father unexpectedly dies, her grandfather pressures her to accept being sold as an indentured servant to the Latin Master at the college so that her brother can become a student there. She reluctantly accepts the servitude, for her brother’s sake, and sets her mind to accept her lot in life. Caleb bristles at the notion of Bethia becoming a servant because her grandfather values his money more than his granddaughter, and her brother is too spineless and self-centered to stand up for what he should. He points out that a “squa” in his culture is never treated like a slave.

Through their uncommon friendship, he affirms her equality in his eyes and by his example, he strengthens her resolve to make choices that are right for her future. Her quiet strength and perseverance help him weather hunger, racism and loneliness in a city teeming with filth and disease, and graduate near the top of his class. Caleb and Bethia end up at the college together, and although he is a student and she a servant, they are able to encourage and protect each other during these difficult years.

Brooks gives a beautiful portrayal of true friendship, with colorful descriptions, tender insight and poetic prose. I found myself rooting for Bethia as she hurled caution to the wind, exploring the island without a chaperone and befriending the young Caleb. I found myself disappointed in her for caving to societal and family pressure and agreeing to indentured servitude so her undeserving brother could get his education.

One of the reasons this book is such an enjoyable read is because it does not have neat and tidy characters and happy endings like many fictional stories. The characters are fully developed, realistic, unpredictable and oftentimes messy. It portrays reality in that friends and family sometimes bitterly disappoint us and yet even those who hurt us most with mocking words, mean-spirited gossip and selfish tendencies still have remarkably redeeming qualities.

The story comes to a shocking and sad conclusion, where the reader is left to wonder if it was all for naught, and yet there are tendrils of redemption woven throughout and as I turned the last page, I was immensely satisfied with the ending. I have read Geraldine Brooks’ other works, People of the Book, Year of Wonders and the nonfiction Nine Parts of Desire, and Caleb’s Crossing is utterly absorbing and measures up to the rest, and then some.

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