I have loved every single novel that Geraldine Brooks has written, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning March to Year of Wonders and the brilliant The People of the Book. Her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing, is no exception. She takes her usual approach of starting with historical facts and building a fictional story to fill in the blanks, and the result is just as engrossing as her previous novels.
The amazing bit of truth that Brooks starts with in this case is that Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, one of only 465 graduates in the entire seventeenth century. Caleb (his English name) was born in 1646 among the Wôpanâak people on the small island that we now call Martha’s Vineyard, which was purchased by a Puritan businessman named Thomas Mayhew in 1641.
From there, Brooks uses her imagination to recreate Caleb’s adolescence and the circumstances that led to his attending and graduating from Harvard. The narrator of the novel is Bethia, granddaughter of the buyer of the island, who meets Caleb when she is twelve years old. The two become fast friends and learn a lot from each other but keep their forbidden friendship secret from their families.
Bethia is a spirited young girl, eager to read and learn but stymied by the mores of that time that dictated that only young men were educated beyond the basics women needed to know to run their households. Here, Bethia’s loving father addresses her yearning for knowledge:
“Bethia, why do you strive so hard to quit the place in which God has set you?” His voice was gentle not angry. “Your path is not your brother’s, it cannot be. Women are not made like men. You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you. I care only for your present health and your future happiness. It is not seemly for a wife to know more than her husband…”
(I know, can you believe it? It’s a good thing I wasn’t born in the 1600’s – my brain definitely would have been addled!)
Her father, the local minister, believes that the new white settlers should live peaceably and fairly with the Native Americans on the island (though of course, he wants to convert them to Christianity), but not everyone on the island agrees with him. Conflicts with Caleb’s people lead to he and Bethia being separated for a period of time, though they are reunited as young adults (still not letting on that they knew each other before).
Bethia and Caleb – and their families – are fully drawn, likable characters, and the novel follows the joys and sorrows of both their lives. And there are plenty of sorrows here – it is, after all, the seventeenth century, with all of its inherent dangers and lack of modern conveniences. However, I never found the book depressing or maudlin, probably because the story is told from Bethia’s diary, and she is a remarkable, optimistic young woman who is capable of surmounting many challenges. The story and the characters pulled me fully into their world, and I never wanted it to end. Everyone in my book club enjoyed it, too.