Caleb’s Crossing is a poignant story of culture clash that occurred when the Wampanoag inhabitants of the island now known as Martha’s Vineyard come into contact with the Puritan settlers. Geraldine Brooks, an Australian-American journalist who herself lives on Martha’s Vineyard, was inspired by the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wampanoag who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665.
The novel is narrated by Bethia, a young Puritan girl who struggles with the restrictions of her gender and her religion. Enjoying some forbidden freedom and exploring the island while supposedly running errands, she meets Caleb by chance and the two form a forbidden friendship that lasts a lifetime, teaching each other about their respective worlds.
After her mother dies in childbirth (something Bethia unfairly blames herself for), her preacher father expects young Bethia to retreat into the womanly world of housekeeping and child-rearing, giving up her studies despite her natural aptitude. And when Caleb, recently converted to Christianity, comes to live with them to study, the two must pretend never to have met.
Bethia’s lot in life is emphasised by her indenture as a servant as payment for her minimally talented brother Makepeace’s tuition at a boarding school. Caleb and another Wampanoag boy, Joel, also attend the school with their tuition paid for by an organisation with the long-winded name of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Indians. Both Caleb and Joel eventually go on to study at Harvard with the Society’s support, but it is not smooth sailing.
In the latter part of the book, especially, Caleb’s story of achievement in the face of prejudice and discrimination is told around the edges of Bethia’s own story of marginalisation. She must always conceal what she knows (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Wampanoag) behind the demure and modestly silent demeanor appropriate for a minister’s godly daughter, contrasting with Caleb whose own studies are paraded as an example of the civilising effect of Christianity on the ‘salvages’ [sic] as the Puritans called them.
Brooks’ well researched use of period language shines here, immersing the reader in a world that is almost as foreign to us as it was to Caleb.
If you enjoyed People of the Book, Year of Wonders or March, you will love Caleb’s Crossing
Find Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks in the Library Catalogue.