Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks was an inspired choice for the last book I read during 2011; it turns out that it is also my favorite book of the year. I began 2012 with another of Brooks’ titles, March, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and also have her People of the Book ready on my nightstand. I have also read her Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague.
My reading preferences fall to character-driven books and rarely do I choose to read a title solely based on plot or setting (although I do have an affection for books about the south or southerners). I was thinking about what it is about Brooks’ historical fiction that sets it apart from the many other selections I might make. What would keep me in the 17th century Martha’s Vineyard or the “Plague Village” of Eyam, England? In the cases of Caleb’s Crossing and Year of Wonders, it was a woman of strength and courage who went beyond their era’s prescribed gender role. In doing so, they both brought me to a better understanding of the time and place of the story. The protagonist in March is male — the father of the March girls in Little Women — but it is he who takes me to the reality of the Civil War and life during that period of history.
Caleb’s Crossing was inspired by the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck was a Wampanoag native to Martha’s Vineyard who meets Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Calvinist minister, when she is exploring the island. Caleb and Bethia become close friends, and he introduces her to his culture as he learns about hers. His education extends to being tutored by Bethia’s father and Bethia, denied such education because of her gender, learns by listening to Caleb’s tutoring sessions. Caleb’s intellect eventually takes him to Cambridge and Harvard, and Bethia is allowed to go along in the company of her brother. She continues to learn through any means she can find, including eavesdropping on lectures while working off a debt for her brother’s education. Caleb’s eventual matriculation from Harvard comes at a price, as he struggles with the prejudices against Native Americans at the college and eventually, his own spiritual beliefs and practices as opposed to Christianity.
As I mentioned above, it is Bethia who took me deeper into Caleb’s story, even as I became more interested in her own struggles for knowledge and her willingness to do anything to educate herself. Her character (in both senses of the word) are what moved the story along for me and helped keep me interested in the plot.
I find it most interesting that this book was published at the time when the second Martha’s Vineyard Wopanaak completed an undergraduate degree, almost 350 years after the first. Tiffany Smalley received her degree in 2011, presided by Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president.