Geraldine Brooks infuses vivid color, texture, sound, and aroma to little-explored slices of history, breathing new life into facts culled from microfiche and special library collections. She is a sublime storyteller, one whose prose leads you to curl up on the sofa at any possible opportunity, or sends you early to bed, so you can lose yourself again in her narrative.
The setting of Caleb’s Crossing is the island Noepe (now known as Martha’s Vineyard), and Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the 1660’s. Although the novel is based on the true account of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, the voice of the story belongs to fictional Bethia Mayfield, daughter of the island settlement’s minister and childhood friend of Caleb. Through Bethia’s wanderings, we fall in love with the wild, sparkling beauty of Noepe. We witness the tension and the tenderness between the recently-landed English settlers and the Wampanoag tribe that have served as the island’s stewards for centuries. We become a part of the challenging daily lives of America’s earliest immigrants as they learn to adapt their crops, animal husbandry, housekeeping, and their religion and philosophical lives to the demands of a new land.
Bethia receives some schooling from her father, a significant exception in an era where women marry young and devote their lives to their hearth and family. Her intelligence, curiosity, and courage make her an ideal companion to Caleb, the son of a Wampanoag chieftain. He matches her wit for wit, learning English, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek in his quest to ensure his own culture’s survival by learning the ways of the English invaders.
As the story moves from Noepe to Cambridge and Harvard College, the narrative focuses more on Bethia as she grows into womanhood, than on Caleb as he undertakes his studies. Again, through Bethia’s eyes, we witness the growth of a settlement into a town and the early days of American academe. I wonder if Brooks considered using Caleb as narrator and what made her choose to tell the story through the voice of a young Protestant woman. Bethia’s character is strong and nuanced. I think Brooks was wise to use a voice to which she could lend the greatest amount of empathy, one that could comprehend and explain the cultures she encounters with authenticity and clarity.
Caleb’s Crossing is a fascinating melding of the ancient- Native American culture, the old- English traditions, and the new- a nation in the making. Geraldine Brooks remains one of my favorite writers of historical fiction. From painstaking research, she weaves nuanced novels with rich characters and fascinating plots that are as engaging as they are informative.