Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

In the year 1665, a young man named Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck became the first Native American student to graduate from Harvard. He was born on Martha’s Vineyard, which was at that time mostly inhabited by the native Wampanoag. As a teen, he traveled to the mainland to attend a preparatory school and the Harvard. Little is known about him other than the bare facts of his life, but author Geraldine Brooks uses these few facts to create a powerful novel of family, culture and faith.

Caleb’s Crossing is narrated by Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan minister who has moved his family to Martha’s Vineyard to try to convert the Wampanoag. Bethia is very bright; she wants to learn and to explore her world, but as a young girl she is expected to tend to her family and their home. She is able to slip away and explore the island for short times as she forages wild plants to add to the family’s dinner, and on one of these explorations she meets Caleb, son of a Wampanoag sonquem, or leader. The two become friends, although they must hide their friendship from their families. Bethia’s father also meets Caleb and begins to educate him, unaware of his friendship with Bethia. In time, Caleb and several other students from the island attend a preparatory academy in Cambridge and then Harvard itself, studying the classics, religion, and philosophy alongside the sons of governors and leaders in the colonial community. Bethia becomes an indentured servant in Cambridge and narrates Caleb’s story of crossing cultures, as well as her own struggle to find a place as she thirsts for knowledge in a culture that frowns upon education for women. Bethia and Caleb both strive to fulfill grand ambitions, but feel pulled into defined roles and identities by their families.

Caleb’s Crossing does a wonderful job exploring their world, from the natural beauty of Martha’s Vineyard to the early years of higher education in America, and shows the reader a glimpse of both Puritan and Wampanoag culture. I listened to the book on audio; narrator Jennifer Ehle does a wonderful job creating Bethia’s voice, and added another dimension to the story.

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