Caleb's Crossing - A Trip Back In Time

BlogHer Review

What do you get when you combine a well spun tale and some factual knowledge about the past? An extremely entertaining and interesting history lesson. And that is what Geraldine Brooks gifts us with in Caleb's Crossing.

This wonderful story takes place in the 1600's in Massachusetts. Plucking a little known, and true fact out of American history - Ms. Brooks builds an entire book around the first Native American tto graduate from Harvard College (now Harvard University). Ironically, I read this story while attending a sporting event for one of my children on the Harvard University campus. As I looked around me and turned the pages, I could imagine what the same place would have been like some 300 odd years ago.

The story begins on an island of the coast of Massachussetts, what we now refer to as Martha's Vineyard. A young child Bethia Mayfield lives on this island with her preacher father, her mother, and her older brother Makepeace. Her father's mission is to convert the salvages (Indians) that live on the island to Christianity.

Bethia is an enterprising soul, with an intelligence far beyond what was considered appropriate for a young woman in those times. She was also very lonely since the death of her twin brother in an accident a few years before. She has taken to exploring the island on her own as often as she can - and soon meets a young Indian boy of about her own age - a boy to whom she gives the nickname Caleb. They form a fast friendship and he teaches her the language of his people while she teaches him English and to read and write. He also teaches her about the wonders and the natural beauty of the island.

The author's descriptions of the island throughout Bethia's childhood paint a picture of a shimmering Eden that was largely untouched by man. I honestly felt a little jealous - in that I wanted to witness a place such as this. As Bethia and Caleb grow older - their lives are burdened with greater responsibilities and sadness. They no longer get to meet and play with careless abandon. When a sickness wipes out much of Caleb's tribe - he makes the decision to convert to Christianity and comes to live with Bethia's family - who have no knowledge of their friendship.

Caleb and a fellow Indian convert Joel - become students of Bethia's father along with Makepeace - Bethia's brother. Hovering in the background during lessons, Bethia - a quick study - secretly absorbs all of the teachings, her longing to learn so strong.

***Spoiler Alert***

When her father is killed in an unfortunate accident - Bethia's grandfather sends the Indians and Makepeace to Cambridge to continue their lessons for one year. After which they would then move on to Harvard. The grandfather will pay Makepeace's tuition and offers Bethia (with her approval) up as an indentured servant to pay his way. And so it is that the four of them head to the mainland - a place so drab and dirty that the stench hits their noses even as they disembark from the boat. A huge contrast from the wonders of the island.

Being a true pioneer of spirit - Bethia handles her duties well and without complaint. When Makepeace - not the sharpest tack in the box - decides to quit and head back to the island, she even manages to turn that situation to her advantage. She earns her freedom from indenture and takes a position as a servant at Harvard so that she may overhear lessons and follow along as best she can. Both Caleb and Joel are admitted to the college. And while they have a rough start - they soon rise as shining stars. Joel even achieves the coveted role of class Valedictorian.

***Spoiler Alert Again***

Sadly, Joel is killed before graduation. And in other downturn, Caleb dies just one year later of consumption. In the end, Bethia does find her true love. A man that supports her sharp mind and her spirit. Eventually she returns to the island - living a good and fulfilling life.


After reading this book - that was my question. Why did Joel have to die? Why did Caleb have to die? These two very promising individuals that could have paved the way for so many more Native Americans. And then I read the Afterward. Caleb and Joel were real people. Joel was killed before graduation - and Caleb died one year later. Geraldine Brooks did not change those facts - but rather created a story around them. And while I would have liked for things to have turned out differently. History is history, and you can't change that.

I enjoyed reading this book and learning more about our Nation's past - especially about the conflict of religion between the Native Americans and the colonists. The author shows us Bethia's intellectual struggle between following the colonists in preaching Christianity and seeing the good and the reasoning behind the Indians own beliefs. Although I finished reading this book a few days ago, it keeps popping into my mind giving me thoughts and food for reflection. I have added Geraldine Brooks' other books to my "must read" list.


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