I have read three of Geraldine Brooks’ four novels and they have each been absolutely outstanding. Brooks is a journalist by trade, but she is an historian at heart. I am so blown away by her imagination, creative story lines and her dedication to getting her history right. [March is Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel imagining what happened to the father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in the Civil War; People of the Book is a novel that traces the history of a religious tome back through various periods of history.]
Caleb’s Crossing made a number of 2011 “best book” lists and deserves its place there. Brooks’ inspiration for this novel came from a small scrap of information she discovered while visiting Nantucket — that a couple of Wampanoag youths from Nantucket actually graduated from Harvard in 1665. Caleb was one of those young men and is one of the main characters of this novel. The other main character and our narrator, Bethia, is fictional. Brooks did extensive research to be sure that her treatment of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (a rather oppressive place) and that her depiction of lives for women and Native Americans there are accurate. In her Afterward, she lays out what parts of her novel are fact (a few names, dates and places) and how much is fictionalized (the bulk). Just because it is fiction, however, does not make it implausible and Brooks does a fine job of arguing in her Afterward why some the situations she imagines might be closer to the truth than what historians have concluded.
Caleb’s Crossing is about the secret friendship between Bethia, an English colonist on Nantucket and daughter of a minister, and Cheeshahteaumauk (later known as Caleb), the son of the Wampanoag sonquem (public or social leader) and nephew of the pawaaw (spiritual leader). Their friendship is illicit, as neither culture would sanction a friendship between the two worlds, much less between a male and female. Initially, Caleb teaches Bethia about the natural world and the secrets of the island where they live. Bethia teaches Caleb the alphabet, English and how to read. Each character crosses into the world of the other to some extent. As they grow older, events unfold to tear them from one another and then reunite. Bethia’s father, whose ministry is devoted to the conversion of the “salvages,” takes on Caleb and another native youth, Joel, as students. He strives to prepare them alongside his son Makepeace for matriculation at Harvard. Bethia, who is much smarter and intellectual than Makepeace and has a great desire to learn, listens to the lessons as she does her chores and learns as much as the boys. Due to a series of tragic events, Bethia ends up an indentured servant in Cambridge while Caleb, Joel and Makepeace are studying there. As a result, our narrator can continue to tell us the story of the first Native American Harvard graduates, along with her own personal story as a woman of intelligence in an oppressive and restrictive society.
“Crossing” has several meanings in this novel. It can refer to the journey between the island and the mainland, a sometimes treacherous and deadly affair. It also refers to natives giving up their traditional ways for Christianity and the ways of the English. Crossing can also refer to death, and there is quite a bit of death in this story. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1630 and as anyone who remembers their history knows, the early years of the settlement were a time of struggle, privation, sickness and battles between colonists and natives. Another meaning for “crossing” is betrayal, and the English often took advantage of Natives’ misunderstanding of their ways to cheat them out of land and renege on promises. Caleb experiences several types of “crossing” in this novel, as do other characters. This really is an excellent novel and a pretty quick read. You will learn a lot while being drawn into a brilliantly crafted story.