“First Native American to Attend Harvard” is how Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel is being touted everywhere, so that’s in my title above also; however, I believe that’s misleading to some extent. This bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Geraldine Brooks, does tell the imagined story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, who was born in 1645 on Martha’s Vineyard and was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. He attended the Indian College at Harvard with his friend Joel Iacoomes. At the same time, the story is actually told through the eyes and perception of Bethia Mayfield. I feel like it’s really her story as much as it is his, if not more so.
I’ve loved every novel Geraldine Brooks has written, and Caleb’s Crossing is no exception. Ms. Brooks does exceptional research for all of her novels and that gives them a depth and complexity that’s hard to beat. For example, at the end of Caleb’s Crossing she relates the facts she uncovered about Caleb and other characters/locations in the novel as well as how the novel differs from events which actually took place. After reading the novel, getting that kind of insight is a wonderful plus. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m really excited to share this historical novel with you.
To really get this novel at the level it deserves, you have to realize it was a given in the 1600’s that girls and women were still treated like possessions in many areas of the U.S. They had about as many rights as a table or chair, and could be harshly punished with impunity (or put to death) if they so much as questioned that. Parents had absolute rights over their children and husbands had absolute rights over their wives. It was frowned upon and outright forbidden in most places for girls to be educated. They were to be literally seen and not heard as both children and adults. They knew from birth that they would be servants in their father’s homes, followed by an arranged marriage to someone they probably didn’t know (and who might be 20+ years older), in whose home they would birth as many children as possible while acting basically as servants. That’s how it was and that’s a difficult thing to read about as “normal” for today’s woman. If they were extremely lucky, they were fathered by and married to a kind man. I found myself bristling a lot at first while reading Caleb’s Crossing, until I realized I had to let go of how I wanted it to be and really look at how it was, something I could do because I’ve read enough of Geraldine Brooks’ work to know I can trust her to tell as much of the unvarnished truth as she can find about a period and location.
Let’s talk about Caleb’s Crossing, which opens in 1660 when Caleb and Bethia are about 15 years old. Bethia Mayfield is a Puritan minister’s daughter in a very strict New England. She has been taught to believe the Bible is not just the word of God but is absolute word-for-word truth. She has also been taught to believe anyone who doesn’t adhere to its rules is truly lost and condemned to Hell. She and her family live on an island off the coast of what became Massachusetts, in a location that sounds a lot like what is now Martha’s Vineyard. The settlers on this small forested island live in harsh conditions on every level, and life expectancy isn’t very long. (To give you an idea of the state of healthcare, bloodletting is still a commonly accepted form of treatment.) Several tribes of Native Americans also live on the island and on surrounding islands and, as Caleb’s Crossing opens, those tribes live pretty separately and on tenuous terms with the settlers.
Bethia has the fortune or misfortune, depending on how you look at it, to have a curious, inquiring mind. She questions everything. She’s like a sponge absorbing everything she hears and sees around her even though she knows she must be careful in how she acquires her knowledge. She listens carefully to her father as he tries to teach her lazy brother, Makepeace, the classics, Latin and Greek. She has an ear for languages and picks both up very easily. She’s fortunate that her father, a Puritan minister who preaches to any island tribesmen who will listen, teaches her to read the Bible – something he’s forbidden to do. She also pays very close attention to the local midwife and wise woman, who teaches her herbs and medical skills. Bethia is dismayed with how subservient and non-confrontive her mother appears in mixed company when she knows her to be a smart and knowledgeable woman, and vows she won’t be that way.
“When she [Bethia’s mother] went about the world, it was with downcast eyes and sealed lips. She was like a butterfly, full of color and vibrancy when she chose to open her wings, yet hardly visible when she closed them. Her modesty was like a cloak that she put on, and so adorned, in meekness and discretion, it seemed she passed almost hidden from people, so that betimes they would speak in front of her as if she were not there.”
Although Bethia doesn’t realize it until things begin to change in her life, she’s given much wider latitude than normal for a girl of her time and place. Although she’s supposed to only go out into the island’s wilds accompanied, to protect her from natives as well as wild animals, that doesn’t always happen. While out clamming alone one day, she spies a band of Wampanoag hunters and gives them a wide berth she thinks. As she goes about her business of raking for shellfish, she turns and comes face to face with Cheeshahteaumauck, the Nobnocket sonquem’s son, who becomes the Caleb of our story.
“His smile was unguarded, his teeth very fine and white, and something about his expression made it impossible to fear him.”
“The truth, now, set down here, before God: I loved the hours I spent with him. In [one] very short season, he filled the empty space that Zuriel [her dead brother] had left in my heart. I had never had such a friend before…To have formed any kind of easy association with any of the few English boys my age would have been an affront to modesty. But this boy was a different thing entirely. He had soon become more like a brother to me…”
Caleb is her age and finds her as curious as she does him. His unquenchable thirst for knowledge equals hers, so they teach each other their languages until each is fluent in both and she teaches him about the classics. Bethia does her best to teach him of her faith and he teaches her his. They question each other relentlessly. Neither is the same for having gotten to know the other. They strike up a friendship that is more like family than friends – a life-long caring relationship, which takes them both in directions neither could have predicted. Are they both the better for it? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
This is not a simple story about friendship. It is a complex, realistic, no-holds barred story that reveals much about the times – a story of diversity, of rigidness, of marginalization, of hardship, of tragedy, of growing up, of joy, of transcendence, of faith, of hope, of love, of commitment, of the mind and of the heart. If you’ve never read a Geraldine Brooks novel, you’re in for a treat with Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel. If you have then just know that this one is every bit as wonderful as the others have been. Enjoy!
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