Caleb's Crossing: A journey to the early American wilderness

BlogHer Review

When I hear references to Martha’s Vineyard, I think of a place filled with ridiculously elegant mansions populated by unbelievably rich people. I imagine Kelly Ripa (doesn’t she have a house there?) spending a day hopping from one luxury boutique to another, then taking some time for a tanning session, an overpriced haircut, and a healthy, gourmet meal at a five-star restaurant.

Until I read Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, I hadn’t even considered what a place like Martha’s Vineyard looked like before it became a play place for the ultra rich. So I found it fascinating to read this novel’s descriptions of a beautiful, mostly-untamed wilderness, populated by Native Americans and a small community of English settlers.

This is Noepe (one of the island’s Native American names), and this is the mid-17th century -- many years before the island acquired paved roads and a posh reputation. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Caleb’s Crossing is the view it provides into historic America, a land of natives slowly losing control to British colonists. The reader later leaves Noepe to spend time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a small city that stinks of sewage and struggles to support a tiny little divinity school called Harvard College.

Caleb’s Crossing's narrator is young Bethia Mayfield. Her father is an English minister, spreading the Christian Gospel to natives on the island. Bethia chances to meet a Native American boy she calls Caleb, and as they form a friendship (and hide it from their families), they learn each others’ language and culture. Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was a real man, the first Native American Harvard graduate, though this account of his life is fictional.

Bethia and Caleb grow into young adults, both profoundly affected by their unique relationship. Bethia is attracted by the connection to nature and spiritualism that Caleb and his people have, while Caleb yearns for the favor the Christian God seems to give the English settlers. They both desire education and independence. Despite their different backgrounds, they encounter similar challenges in a culture that generally sees both Native Americans and women as intellectually inferior to white men.

Geraldine Brooks has written with language that seems appropriately old-fashioned, yet the novel is also easy to read. I did not like the device given to the narrator to explain how and when she was writing her story, finding it inconsistent and at times confusing. However, it was a fairly minor distraction from an otherwise compelling book.

I’d like to address the religious elements of the book. One of the novel’s themes is that perhaps the Christian religion and the spiritualism of the Native Americans are both valid and useful. This “gray area theology” will be bothersome to some readers with certain deeply-held beliefs. As a Christian, I found the questions brought up by the book to be challenging. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it’s an uncomfortable thing.

Caleb’s Crossing was an enjoyable, engaging novel that connected me emotionally with the characters while also awakening an interest in early American history that I didn’t know I had. Geraldine Brooks wrote this novel (or at least its afterword) on Martha’s Vineyard. Even as she enjoyed the luxuries afforded there, I can’t help but think she must yearn for the untamed wilderness of the 1600s -- just as many of her readers will.

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