Caleb’s Crossing is the 2012 Reading Across Rhode Island choice, which means many activities involving the book, including a special May 5 breakfast with the author, have been scheduled around the state. But don’t read it just for that reason. Read it because it is a fascinating glimpse of life at the time when the newly arrived English Puritans began engaging culturally with Native Americans. Read it because it is a gift to all those who love historical fiction with a strong sense of authenticity and accuracy.
This much is factual: in 1661, a young Native American from the Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, was enrolled at the fledgling Harvard College. His name was Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a son of a Wampanog chieftain. Very little else is known about him except that he graduated in 1665 and died just a year later from consumption. He was the first of several Native Americans to be educated at Harvard as the English counted on them to bring Christianity and English values to their “pagan” cultures. Many English churches at the time happily funded this cause.
As she has done in several of her novels, Geraldine Brooks takes this tiny snippet of known history and uses to weave an enticing fictional tapestry. Caleb’s life story is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the young daughter of a Puritan minister whose mission is to convert the Wampanoags of Martha’s Vineyard. As she wanders around the beautiful windswept island gathering food for her family, she secretly befriends Caleb. They learn each other’s language and customs, but their friendship is strictly forbidden and must be kept secret. In his efforts to convert him to Christianity, Bethia’s father begins tutoring Caleb and is very impressed with his intellectual abilities. He encourages Caleb to go to Harvard along with his son Makepeace, a young man who unfortunately does not have the same aptitude for learning.
At the heart of the novel is the clash between cultures that both Bethia and Caleb experience as well as the limitations put on Bethia, an intelligent young woman of the 17th century with a passion for learning. The doors to Harvard are closed to her but she does finally succeed in her pursuit of knowledge. Working as an indentured servant at Harvard, she manages to listen in on lectures as well as keeping in touch with Caleb as he leaves behind his native culture and crosses over into the world of the English Puritans. The natural beauty of life on the island creates a stark contrast with life in the stifling and physically unhealthy village of early Cambridge.
Brooks’ in-depth historical research, her intriguing use of accurate archaic words of the period, combined with her attention to the rich details of everyday existence bring the people and the period to life.
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