Caleb's Crossing is a Journey Worth Taking
Folks interested in trying out a new culture, a new identity just might get their adventure fix by reading Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. The book tells the journey of Caleb, a member of the Wampanoag Indian tribe that resides on Martha’s Vineyard in 1665 who becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. It’s also the story of Bethia Mayfield, a young Puritan on a journey of her own as she moves from childhood into adulthood.
Bethia narrates the tale, beginning with the friendship she and Caleb forge as youngsters and following it through the challenges each faces on their shared trek from a culture of familiarity into the unknown.
Caleb may be the book’s namesake, but his struggles and triumphs on the road to education seem more of a backdrop to the larger story, that of Bethia’s quest for education at a time when women weren’t allowed to be educated and her constant desire to make her own choices at a time when women’s choices and fates were decided by the men charged with keeping and protecting them.
I was moved by the strength of Caleb and Bethia’s friendship despite the cultural and familial forces that threatened to tear them apart. More so, I was pleased to see that — as is rarely the case with similar story lines — the friendship remained platonic and never faced the trappings of a romantic entanglement.
The bittersweet crossing of Caleb from Indian to English culture, Bethia from naïve and headstrong child to mature yet still-headstrong woman proved an interesting journey with a satisfying ending.
What I liked about the book: The tale had an epic feel typical of much longer books, yet didn’t require an exorbitant time commitment to complete it. Also, the afterword provided interesting details on the real-life Caleb who inspired the fictional account, as well as commentary on the Martha’s Vineyard of the mid-1600s. In hindsight, I wish I had read the afterword first so I knew what was fiction and what was true as I read the story.
What I didn’t like so much: Bethia’s formal dialogue and writing, although clearly necessary for authenticity, made it difficult to strongly relate to her. The book would have been more evocative, at least for me, if I felt a deeper connection to Bethia. In addition, the numerous Indian names of people and places were impossible for me to pronounce in my head as I read, so I found myself skimming over such parts.
Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was intrigued by the crossing each character successfully made and the repercussions and consequences of those crossings. The theme of clashes between cultures, class and gender resonated as well, as remnants of the dissension described during Caleb’s and Bethia’s time unfortunately remain today.