Caleb's Crossing: A Beautiful, Descriptive Tale of Our American History

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Imagine living and loving your life and environment wholly. One day a complete stranger, one who doesn't know anything about you, nor speaks your language, enters your world and communicates to you that everything you know and believe in your life is wrong. This was the reoccurring theme that struck me as I read Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. Challenging one’s belief system is a simplified way to describe what Ms. Brooks demonstrates with her characters Caleb and Bethia. A chance encounter that initiated a beautiful friendship between two young teenagers led to a whirlwind spin on both of their lives in very different ways resulting in the question of should it had happened and how would life be had they never met.

Caleb’s Crossing is written in the narrative of lead character Bethia Mayfield. Had it been set in the 2000s, it could very well have been a memoir style blog. It was however, set in 1660 near the new colony of Massachusetts, on an island that we refer to today as Martha’s Vineyard. This tale of a young girl living with her minister father and family beautifully describes what it might have been like to grow up among pioneers, Puritans, and most importantly, Native Americans, or "salvages" as they called them in the 1660s. I was fascinated by how the author detailed island life, and later, life in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the latter half of the 1600s.

Bethia describes her life in vivid detail, from the time she is about 12 years old. As a young person she suffered terrible losses that today would lead to a slew of mental health issues. In her time, life just went on and one adapted to the loss. The reliance on the rules of severe religious belief compounded by the ignorance of basic science, made life for Bethia even more challenging. I was amazed by her thirst for knowledge, her self-confidence in her own abilities, and her savvy to educate herself in the most inventive ways. In the 1660s, women were discouraged from education, so as to not outwit their (potential) husbands. Bethia sought out to learn, despite being discouraged, by being inventive: eavesdropping on her brother’s lessons or taking work in the kitchen at Harvard to overhear the male students’ lectures.

Caleb was the young salvage she met as a young girl. Her minister father was determined to convert all of the island’s salvages to his type of Christianity, believing that any other belief system was the work of the devil. This missionary work brings up such sadness in me, as I’ve never understood why people must make others think exactly like themselves and not accept that “to each his own” belief. This conversion in belief partially led to the downfall of the Native Americans, in my opinion. That and the fact that the pioneers and Puritans introduced toxic substances to their clean environment: diseases and alcohol. Caleb’s tale is a sad one. His early losses mimic Bethia’s in some ways, and his determination to educate himself in order to help his people is noble.

This work of historical fiction was inspired by life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. I have been a fan of historical fiction for a while, but usually read tales about England and France. Reading about early American life and the hardships the people faced, was a wonderful reminder of how far Americans, and quite frankly, women, have come. It was also a sad reminder of the terrible mistreatment of the Native American people. They gave up everything when America was founded by immigrants. Geraldine Brooks tells a beautiful, descriptive tale about our American history. I look forward to reading other works by this author.

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