Caleb’s Crossing is another Geraldine Brooks triumph. Her work never fails to satisfy—she is a genius at taking a small sliver of history and holding it up to the light. The refraction reveals stories within stories in shifting and compelling images. This novel begins with the fact that the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University was a Wampanoag from Martha’s Vineyard in the late 17th century. From slender historical gleanings, Brooks spins a rich fiction of crossing boundaries, daring to slip outside predetermined roles, insatiable curiosity about what seems foreign and new, and the powerful appeal of near-pristine nature on an island off the coast of Massachusetts.
Bethia Mayfield is the bright, articulate, restless and conflicted daughter of Puritan missionaries who farm the island, called Great Harbor, and attempt to convert its Wampanoag residents. Her family is loving but as beset by disasters and tradition as any in those harsh, pioneering times. Bethia’s mother is a deeply religious but gentle soul who allows her daughter some free reign to protect her strong spirit. Bethia takes advantage of loose supervision to roam the island, discovering its delights and eventually encountering Caleb, an equally curious boy on the cusp of adolescence who becomes her friend and guide to the pantheistic world of his tribe.
Tragedy alters Bethia’s roaming and she blames herself for the loss and sorrow that colors her world. Deaths scar the Mayfield family. Bethia struggles with the frustration of eavesdropping on her slow-witted brother’s Greek and Latin lessons because girls are not considered suitable receptacles for academic learning. Hers is the appealing voice of a girl becoming a young woman while trying to reconcile the knowledge of her quick intellect and heart with the traditions of her own family and tribe.
Ultimately Caleb, who is tutored alongside Bethia’s dull, mean-spirited brother Makepeace, is accepted to Harvard and all three—Caleb, Makepeace and Bethia set out for Cambridge, an arduous sea journey away. But Bethia goes as an indentured servant to “pay” for Makepeace’s tutoring to prepare him to gain entrance to the university. She turns her back on an easy life as the wife of a prosperous farmer on Great Harbor and tolerates all the deprivations of her servitude for duty to family and the chance to acquire some book knowledge surreptitiously. Caleb struggles with his acculturation—Harvard was no liberal bastion and his life there is hard, empty of the colors of nature, and physically debilitating.
Bethia’s voice is pitch-perfect for this story. The dramatic events on Great Harbor provide a fair amount of tension. The large questions about the cost of imposing one culture and set of beliefs over another are pretty obvious but the particulars of each life keep abstract issues from overwhelming events. Caleb’s Crossing is a fascinating glimpse of history painted over by human loss and longing, enlivened by a fatal clash of cultures and riveting in its strong characterizations and beautiful, meticulous detail.
Caleb’s Crossing Geraldine Brooks | Viking 2011