Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks: A review

Geraldine Brooks has a knack for taking a tiny thread of true historical fact and weaving it into a fine and intricate pattern that gives a clear picture, though fictional, of the period about which she is writing. She's done it again with Caleb's Crossing. In this case, the slender thread is the graduation from Harvard in 1665 of its first Native American student, a member of the Wampanoag tribe from Martha's Vineyard. Brooks has imagined a biography  for that young man that vividly explores what life was like for both the Puritans and the Native American tribes on the islands off Massachusetts in that period.

The story is told through the voice of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a minister, a good man who does his best to live his hard faith and to bring a healing message of salvation to the tribes. When we meet Bethia, she is a young girl, living with her father and mother and her older brother. Theirs is a hard life and Death constantly sits on their shoulders. One after another, members of the family and others in the small community succumb.

Meantime, Bethia has made a friend. She loves to wander through the woods and along the beaches, and in her wanderings, she has met a young boy, close to her own age. He is a son of the ruling family of the local Wampanoag tribe and he becomes her true brother of the heart. He has a long and, to the English tongue, almost unpronounceable name and Bethia gives him the English name of Caleb. He calls her Storm Eyes. Their friendship flourishes for three years. Then tragedy strikes the Mayfield family once again.

I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it, so suffice it to say that, in the fullness of time, Caleb and another Native American young man named Joel, along with Makepeace Mayfield, Bethia's brother, are sent off to Cambridge to prepare for matriculation into Harvard. The Mayfield family's circumstances have been reduced by this time and, as payment for Makepeace's studies, Bethia is indentured as housekeeper in the school where the boys will be studying.

Bethia's life is exceedingly hard, as Brooks describes it,  rising well before dawn and spending the day in grueling physical labor, but I think this is probably a fairly true account of what life was actually like for a woman in those days. Bethia burns with a desire to be a scholar herself but that path is closed to her by her sex. Women are not to be educated but are to rely upon their husbands for instruction in how to think and behave.  Still, a bright and inquiring mind will find a way and it was fascinating to read about Bethia's path to learning, which in many ways paralleled her friend Caleb's.

Brooks' work is well-researched and is written as a journal kept by Bethia and employing the language that was used in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Some of the terms are truly archaic and difficult to understand, but, usually, it is possible to ferret out their meaning when read in context.  The language simply lends to the authenticity of the work.  I would recommend Caleb's Crossing without hesitation to lovers of historical fiction, especially those who are interested in this particular period.


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