This is one of my library finds, which I decided to borrow after reading the blurb and discovering that it was based on a true story. I find Native American culture particularly interesting plus I’m ever-so-slightly obsessed with historical novels, so this certainly piqued my interest from the outset.
The novel is written in the first person from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, a young girl living in a tiny island settlement called Great Harbor (now Martha’s Vineyard) in the 1650s. Bethia’s father, the town’s minister, sees it as his duty to convert the native Wampanoag people to Christianity. One morning, whilst exploring the island alone, Bethia encounters Caleb, the young son of the Wampanoag chieftain. The two strike up a friendship, with both learning much from the other in terms of language and culture.
When the majority of Caleb’s family are wiped out by smallpox, he comes to live with Bethia’s family. Alongside Bethia’s brother Makepeace and another Wampanoag boy called Joel, Caleb is instructed in Latin and Greek by Bethia’s father. Proving to be able and talented scholars, Caleb and Joel continue their education at Harvard College. The novel is based on the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first native American to graduate from Harvard College.
I enjoyed the fact that Brooks choose to give the narrative voice over to Bethia, who proved to be a worthy narrator. In a time when women were silenced by the subjugation of a patriarchal society, Bethia manages to find a voice – albeit one that often places her on the verges of condemnation – that she uses to defend those she loves. There is a real tragedy behind the fact that she is clearly a natural scholar yet, due to her gender she cannot access the learning that she desperately craves. I particularly liked the fact that Brooks has integrated both Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet into the narrative as reminders of the contemporary voices of women in colonial America.
Brooks’ use of dialogue in the novel feels authentic; Bethia’s frustration at her lack of liberty is clearly evident in her outbursts, whilst comments from the male characters convey their shock at her readiness to speak her mind.
Caleb himself remains a bit of a mystery. There are many points in the novel where he is described as holding back or staying apart from the other characters and as a reader, I constantly wanted to know more. Much of his mysteries are deliberately kept hidden from Bethia but the genuine love and respect between them is evident. I was left with a real sense of this young man’s fortitude, intellect and composure in the face of an unwelcoming and suspicious society .
There is much about the plot that I would love to discuss but in doing so, I run the risk of revealing too much. There are a couple of potential love interests for Bethia and needless to say, she ends up following her heart – well, we couldn’t expect anything less from her! Those of you familiar with the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck will know that he died of consumption (TB) only a year after his graduation from Harvard and his fellow Wampanoag student Joel Iacoomes was tragically killed before he could graduate.
I thoroughly enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing and would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written historical novel exploring the clash between cultures and intolerance of difference during an incredibly volatile period.
Book Group Discussion Prompts:
- Why do you think Brooks chose to write the novel from Bethia’s perspective?
- How do you feel about the way Bethia is treated by the different men in the novel?
- How is the contrast between the Wampanoag way of life and the settlers’ way of life conveyed?
- Discuss religion and the belief systems explored in the novel.
- Why does Brooks make reference to Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet? How does this affect our understanding of Bethia’s place within her society?
- What does having an education mean to the different characters in the novel? Is there a difference between learning and education?
- How would you categorise the genre of this book and why?
- What is the function of Caleb’s uncle, Tequamuck, and his prophesies in the narrative?
- How do you feel about the conclusion of the novel?
- Which section of the novel or character had the most impact upon you and why?
Caleb’s Crossing was published in the UK in 2011 by Fourth Estate. Geraldine Brooks’ website can be found here.