Day 184: Caleb’s Crossing

Cover for Caleb's CrossingBest Book of the Week!

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks is a wonderful novel about life in 17th century Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge. The novel is focused around Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first American Indian to take a degree at Harvard. It is narrated from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, a girl whose thirst for knowledge is only slaked with great difficulty in Puritan New England.

Bethia meets Caleb when they are both twelve. She is wandering around the beaches of her home island, Noepe, later to be called Martha’s Vineyard, in a small act of rebellion because she is not supposed to be alone. She has already been halted in her education by her father, a minister and missionary to the Indians, who sees how her superior abilities humiliate her brother Makepeace.

Caleb is not one of the “praying Indians” who have adopted Christianity and moved closer to town. By all rights Bethia should avoid him. But she loves nature and is happy for Caleb to teach her about the island’s wildlife and learn his language while she teaches him English, reading, and writing. Although their relationship is perfectly innocent, it remains a secret and is naturally broken off as they grow older.

In learning more about English ways, and particularly about writing, Caleb decides he can best help his people by becoming more educated. His path continues together with Bethia’s, as a series of tragedies result in Bethia’s agreement to sacrifice herself for Makepeace’s tuition by working as an indentured servant for the teacher who is preparing Caleb, his friend Joel, and Makepeace to enter Harvard. As Caleb struggles with his adoption of the English culture, Bethia struggles with her own desires for an intellectual life in a culture that only recognizes one path for her–marriage and motherhood.

Although a few historical figures appear in the novel, little is known of Caleb and Joel–both historical figures–so the account is completely fictionalized. For example, Bethia’s father Thomas Mayfield is based on Thomas Mayhew, Jr., who did not have a daughter.

This is an enthralling novel, an evocative picture of the place and times, and Bethia and Caleb are memorable characters.

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