Caleb's Crossing: A Neat Little Nugget of History
Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks is based on a very neat little nugget of history: in 1665 a Native American by the name of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Ms. Brooks took that nugget and ran.
The narrator of Caleb's Crossing is a young woman by the name of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a minister who settled on the island we now know as Martha's Vineyard, in a colony that removed itself from the better established Massachusetts' Bay Colony. Life in the settlement was naturally harsh and owing to their Pilgrim background, personally and spiritually austere. Bethia, having an educated father and a very quick mind, is eager to soak up knowledge wherever she can find it, usually listening in on her father’s tutoring of her older brother, Makepeace. This thirst for knowledge, coupled with her love of the island she was born on ultimately leads to her first encounter with the boy Cheeshahteaumauk.
Cheeshahteaumauk is a member of the Wampanoag tribe, the son of their chief (or sonquem) and the nephew of their powerful healer (or pawaaw). Every subsequent encounter with Cheeshahteaumauk leads her from her single-minded Christianity to a more accepting view of the natural world and the native people’s understanding of it. It also leads Cheeshahteaumauk to a more accepting view of Christianity and the English people who proclaim it. This in turn leads to his learning of the English, Greek and Latin languages and his renaming of Caleb.
Caleb’s obvious intelligence eventually results in him being personally tutored by Bethia’s father and then his acceptance into Harvard’s Indian College. Throughout these years, Bethia is there, learning covertly alongside him, promoting and defending him as necessary.
Though the book is entitled Caleb’s Crossing it is really a book about Bethia. She narrates it from three different times in her life and it’s a first person account so there is really very little Caleb and quite a bit of Bethia. I would have liked to have that reversed as for me personally, Bethia is an unsympathetic and sort of predictable character. I found her arrogant in many ways (which may have been the author’s intent), and try as I might, I just couldn’t like or admire her in any way. At the same time though, I found the flow of her words and the story to be excellent. I don’t always have to like the main character to enjoy a book and I found that I did indeed enjoy this one, more than I realized when I initially finished it. I do still think a greater emphasis on Caleb and how he progressed as remarkably as he did would have made for an excellent story, however I do very much endorse this book. Enjoy!