Caleb’s Crossing is an engrossing piece of historical fiction that takes place in colonial America, based on the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk who was born into the Wampanoag tribe on what is today known as Martha’s Vineyard in Massachussetts, and was one of the first native Americans to attend, and brilliantly succeed at, Harvard College against tremendous odds.
Author Geraldine Brooks, an Australian who today lives with her family on Martha’s Vineyard, narrates the tale of Caleb through the voice of the fictional daughter of the first British colonizer of the Vineyard, Thomas Mayhew (Mayfield, in the book). Like his father before him, Mayhew was a dedicated preacher who had broken away from the more fanatic Puritans on the mainland, and settled with his family and a handful of others on the island with the intention of Christianizing—rather than exterminating–the island’s native American population.
Twelve-year-old Bethia Mayfield had already lost a beloved twin brother, her mother, her baby sister. She has now also lost her childhood and what little independence she had, as she is forced to take over the non-stop drudgery of keeping house for her pious father and closed-minded brother Makepeace. What she especially laments is the loss of her secret friendship with 12-year-old Caleb and their long rambles in the woods, where he had taught her Indian lore and philosophy and his language while she shared her love of books and taught him reading, her language and the basics of Christian doctrine, among other things.
Bethia’s father discovers Caleb a number of years later, realizes his potential, takes him into his home and continues his education in the classics alongside his own son Makepeace. Bethia is forced to endure a status of invisibility while learning what she can through eavesdropping. It becomes clear very quickly that Caleb has quickly outstripped Makepeace, but both are sent to a school in Cambridge to prepare for their Harvard entrance exams. Caleb’s tuition is financed by a society for the education of “salvages” back in England but Makepeace can only go along if Bethia agrees to become an indentured servant at the school. Each must struggle to deal with the stress of poverty, academic pressure, and assimilation as the exam deadlines approach, and beyond.
Author Brooks uses this dramatic story to examine not only the plight of the native American during a period of extreme prejudice and religious fanaticism, but also the plight of the woman who yearns to be more than a drudge at home and enabler of her father’s/husband’s/sons’ careers. Her characters have fascinating philosophical and theological debates along the way. Since my own husband went to Harvard, I found particularly fascinating the glimpse Brooks offers of a Harvard College in its infancy, established to fulfill the needs of the political and religious elites of the American colony of the time. Caleb’s Crossing is at once a coming of age story, a love story, a story about friction between cultures, the price of assimilation, and much more.