Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha's Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.
The narrator of Caleb's Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island's glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe's shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb's crossing of cultures.
Like Brooks's beloved narrator Anna in Year of Wonders, Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha's Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart. Evocative and utterly absorbing, Caleb's Crossing further establishes Brooks's place as one of our most acclaimed novelists.
What a wonderful read! From the language, to the descriptions of island life, to the many-layered issues that make up the story...this is a masterful piece of fiction. The language employed in the novel is delightful. Bethia's voice is uniquely authentic - using words such as "betimes" and antiquated phrases like - wondering "what it was that exercised him so." Her narration helps transport you to the early beginning of English life in the U.S. The characters of Bethia and Caleb (as well as secondary characters) are well-drawn and realistically complex. I love Bethia's spunk and cheered her on in her struggle to gain an education as a woman during that time period. It was also interesting to witness Wopanaak traditions and rituals through the eyes of Bethia who was both innately enthralled and dutifully repulsed by them.
Ms. Brooks supplies a variety of topics to ponder with this story. There are gender and race issues as well as those concerning religion - the Native "heathen" spirituality versus Puritanical faith. These religious disputes lead to the contention between self-preservation versus cultural preservation. Is it right or wrong for Natives to abandon their heritage and assimilate into the English culture? Lots of good topics to roll around in the ol' noggin, no? Overall, I heartily recommend this book - especially to those with a penchant for historical fiction!