“Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks (2011) – 320 pages
“Caleb’s Crossing” is the dramatic story of Caleb Cheshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665, but the main character in the novel is Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister. The family lives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
Bethia has a brother, Makepeace, who is a year older than she is. Each night the minister father tutors his son Makepeace to prepare him for Harvard College. Bethia, being a female, cannot go to Harvard. However she listens in on the tutoring lessons and soon discovers that Makepeace is a somewhat slow, indifferent student, while she picks up all the lessons she overhears including the Greek and the Hebrew quickly. How many times has this scene been repeated throughout history where the brother is given every opportunity while it is the sister who is actually the sharper of the two? Should we follow what our elders and religions tell us, or should we follow our own eyes and ears? “Caleb’s Crossing” is quite passionate and eloquent on the subject of women in the Puritan society, especially since women did about two-thirds of the work.
The novel is also passionate and eloquent on the relations between the Puritans and the Native Americans who are the original residents of Martha’s Vineyard. Ultimately hostilities between the Native Americans and Puritans would result in the King Philip’s War, but at this point in 1660, the Puritans were encouraged by their English backers to try to convert and educate the ‘salvages’. Thus two Native Americans, Caleb and Joel, are added to the minister’s tutoring sessions. As it happens both of them prove to be better students than the son Makepeace.
“Caleb’s Crossing” is written in a forceful straightforward style that may seem somewhat old-fashioned to some. There is no modern cool irony or edge; those devices probably wouldn’t work in a novel about the Puritans anyway. There are just enough Puritan touches to the language (“It was somewhen later…”) to make the writing seem authentic. I found the story gripping and engrossing. The novel is based on historical fact, but there is little existing documentation of that time and most of the main characters are entirely made up. The characters of Bethia Mayfield and Caleb are strong, intelligent young people and make good role models. I can see high school teachers throughout the United States assigning this novel to read as part of the study of Puritan society. It will be a pleasant way to get the inside story of the Puritans. The novel belongs up on the shelf with “The Scarlet Letter” as another great Puritan novel. It is somewhat surprising that it was written by Geraldine Brooks, a writer from Australia.
“Caleb’s Crossing” is outstanding historical fiction that presents the entire Puritan and Native American society of that time with insight and compassion.