Quiet Rebellion in Caleb's Crossing

BlogHer Review

In Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks weaves a rich tapestry out of one simple fact -- in 1665, a young man named Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Little remains about the real life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, so what Brooks presents us with is a fictional story of what might have been.

Caleb's story is told through Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister. Bethia was raised to follow her mother's example and be a meek, silent woman and wife. That pattern unravels one day when she makes a simple choice to go gathering food unaccompanied. Women in her society were never supposed to go out alone. This one act of quiet rebellion changes her pattern and those of everyone she encounters. She sneaks her father's books. She becomes friends with Caleb and introduces him to books and to her religion.

When you make a change to pattern, it changes the entire piece, and that's what happened to Bethia and Caleb. She rebelled against her father's wishes by continuing to sneak away to read books and listen in on her brother's lessons. She rebelled against society when she forged the friendship with Caleb. She rebelled against her religion when she drank from the gourd and danced in the moonlight. Her rebellions were mostly quiet and known only to her, though one resulted in her having to speak out about her sins in public.

Caleb rebelled against his family and his upbringing when he choose to be educated, not just in Greek and Latin, but in Christianity as well. Both he and another Native American student, Joel, defied the expectations of society when they excelled at their education. But Caleb also rebelled against this new world he found himself in by continuing some of the practices of his upbringing.

Bethia and Caleb didn't rebel in the ways we necessarily recognize. They didn't scream or lash out. They didn't make a scene (mostly). Compared to the modern day, their actions hardly seemed rebellious at all. Bethia's internal voice felt contemporary to me, despite the language and some of her choices, and I had to keep reminding myself that this was 350 years ago. Women didn't receive an education. Harvard wasn't, well, Harvard. Cromwell was ruling England when Caleb graduated.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has been famously quoted as saying, "well-behaved women seldom make history." Bethia, though fictional, was a well-behaved woman who never would have made history on her own, but her decisions helped shape it. I can't help but wonder how many real-life Bethias there have been throughout history and how many are just waiting for us to discover them.


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