On Being a Woman in the 1600s: Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

Sometimes you are surprised by what you learn in reading a novel. In Geraldine Brooks new book, Caleb's Crossing, the surprise for me was learning about how women were treated in the 1600s in the new world. Though I had probably read about this somewhere before, it was new to me that women, or girls, were not encouraged to learn. That the narrator of the story, Bethia, had to sneak books to read in order to educate herself made me sad for her. That she was not allowed to even listen to her brother’s lessons seemed cruel to me.

The novel is set in the Martha’s Vinyard area of New England in the late 1600’s. Bethia, who is one of the main characters, talks about her life spent gathering food for the family. She wanders all over the island, looking for berries, herbs, clams, and any other food she may find. During one of her foraging trips, she met Caleb, a native American of the Wampanoag tribe. They become friends and he shows her the best places on the island to gather different foods.

It is interesting to read about the differences in the cultures and religions of the two main characters, with Bethia being the daughter of a Christian minister, and Caleb, who believed in many gods. Bethia seemed at times to be confused about her own spirituality, but dedicated to her beliefs just the same. She calls her association with Caleb a sin, because she was not supposed to be around the opposite sex without a chaperone.

Caleb was the first native American to attend Cambridge, and though this is a fictional account of his life, I was more interested in Bethia and her story. I can’t imagine living in a time when a woman could be held as an indentured servant, or when someone’s parents or grandparents could decide who a woman would marry.

While the entire story is interesting and well written, I was most interested in Bethia’s life. Her account of the time lets you really see how it was to be a woman in those times.

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