Caleb’s Crossing : A Novel

  • Geraldine Brooks
  • Viking
  • 303 pp

An imagined friendship of faith and love draws on the true story of a Wampanoag from Martha’s Vineyard who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.

Reviewed by Alice V. Leaderman

The latest novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks was inspired by the life of Caleb Cheesuhteaumauk, a Wampanoag from the island of Noepe, now called Martha’s Vineyard. In 1665 he became the first Indian to graduate from Harvard College. Brooks tells the story using a fictitious narrator, Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of an English minister who seeks to bring the Wampanoag to God.

Bethia is 12 years old when she meets Caleb on the beach while foraging for her family. The son of a sonquem, or chief, Caleb is tall, dignified and handsome, whether clad in breechclout and leggings in the forest, or later in his English suit in Cambridge. He displays a fine intelligence and disputes with Bethia about practices and ideas of the English, which he finds inferior to those of his people. He expects to become a pawaaw (a sort of medicine man or witch doctor), like his uncle.

Bethia struggles with the Puritan requirements that females be obedient, unlettered and mute, all of which go against her nature. She learns Latin and Greek by eavesdropping on her brother’s lessons, and the Wampanoag language by listening to an Indian convert teaching her father. Despite her attempts to be modest and dutiful, she is driven by curiosity about books and about Wampanoag life, as well by as a broad compassion.

Already a lover of the island’s forests and beaches, Bethia drinks in Caleb’s lessons about its plants and animals. She gives him his English name; he names her “Storm Eyes” in his language. She teaches him to read from her catechism, the only book she owns; he shows her the juiciest blueberries and best clamming spots. It is a new world for both of them, one wholly concealed from others.

Youth soon passes away. At 15 Bethia is keeping house for her father and brother and raising her baby sister after her mother’s death. After smallpox claims Caleb’s family and most of his village, he converts and joins the Mayfield household to become a pupil of Bethia’s father.

Soon a change in circumstances sends Caleb, another Indian boy, Joel, and Bethia’s brother, Makepeace, to a school in Cambridge to prepare for Harvard. Bethia’s grandfather and brother scheme to make her an indentured servant in the school to pay Makepeace’s tuition. The idea outrages Caleb, but Bethia tells him it is God’s will.

If the island is paradise, Cambridge is, in Bethia’s word, purgatory. The town sits on a polluted canal, stinks of garbage and has no clean drinking water. The pupils of the school are half-starved and kept indoors from morning to night. Despite the harsh environment, Caleb and Joel excel in their studies and are admitted to Harvard. Bethia knows many would think the two Indians fortunate, but she understands the freedom they have sacrificed to join the confining life of the colonists.

Bethia loves Caleb and calls him her brother. But the reader senses, and Bethia admits to herself, just once, that what she feels for Caleb is more than love for a brother. Such feelings must be suppressed rather than considered, and Brooks wisely uses a light touch on these and other subtleties that enrich the story.

Caleb crosses over to English culture, but his ultimate goal, as he confides to Bethia, is to gain an understanding of the English God, who appears more powerful than the Wampanoag spirits. Such knowledge will enable him to decide the best course for his people. Only Bethia knows his loyalty is divided, which she sees as a struggle in his soul.

Brooks writes in a language that is rich, vivid and authentic. Marvelous descriptions of the island’s beauty are succeeded by equally compelling pictures of the reeking streets of Cambridge. Details of everyday life and the vocabulary Brooks chooses evoke the period: Bethia sleeps on a shakedown stuffed with corn husks; chops bavins (kindling) for the fire; and serves small beer and bread for bever (breakfast). The context almost always makes the meaning clear, so the reader journeys easily into the 17th century.

Modern readers will pause at the literal belief in Satan held by the settlers. Bethia’s father believes his task is to wrest the Wampanoag from the clutches of Satan. It is not a metaphor, but a fight against real power. Bethia and Caleb, as young adults, are still afraid of Caleb’s uncle, the papaaw. They believe he is possessed by Satan and that his evil magic has caused an English ship to sink.

Bethia does not simply feel guilty, in the modern sense, after her mother dies in childbirth; she literally believes she has caused her mother’s death by seeking to understand the evil Wampanoag religion. Despite the hovering of Satan and the numerous dangers and deaths that Bethia records, the book’s statement, if there is one, concerns perseverance and the need to side with fairness and mercy in everyday life.

The courage of both Caleb and Bethia, their need to conceal their friendship and much else about themselves, the fast pace of events and the language in which the story is told all compel our reading. Wonderfully imagined, beautifully written, this is a book by a master storyteller.

Alice V. Leaderman writes fiction, hikes, skis, gardens and volunteers with a group that promotes the use of native plants. She lives in Maryland with her husband.

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