Caleb’s Crossing


Just in time for Thanksgiving, I am here to recommend a wonderful novel about pilgrims and Indians, Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. I’m a big fan of her novels, and have not yet been disappointed.

Caleb’s Crossing takes as its inspiration the real story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag Indian living on the island that would later become Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1600s.  Caleb converted to Christianity, and is credited as being the first Indian to graduate from Harvard’s Indian College.  He studied with a local minister on the island before moving to Cambridge.  From this slight outline, Brooks creates a lush story of friendship and struggle.  As a boy, Caleb meets 12-year-old Bethia on the beach, and they become fast friends. Bethia is the daughter of the minister, and it is she who gives Caleb his first book, and teaches him English, while he teaches her Wampanoag.  They enjoy traveling the island together, as much a Puritan girl and an Indian boy can do so without being discovered.  They become great friends, and find that they have many interests in common, especially their love of the island and of learning.

The story is told entirely from Bethia’s point of view, in a diary that she keeps periodically throughout her life. Her inner conflict is between wanting to learn and grow, and her sincere desire to do God’s bidding, all while being tempted by the rituals that she sees the Indians on her island practicing. This temptation leads her to believe that God is punishing her when disaster strikes her family, not just once, but several times.

Bethia craves to learn, to know Latin and Greek and Hebrew, to learn of the world beyond her little island. When her father discovers that she has been picking up Latin by listening in to the lessons he gives while cooking or doing dishes, he forbids her to learn more.  But she listens to the lessons he gives to his pupils, while doing dishes or cooking or other such chores, and she continues to learn.  Eventually, her father learns of Caleb and how bright he is, takes him in as a student, with the goal of sending him to Harvard along with his son Makepeace.  That Bethia cannot learn by their sides is a sorrow to her, but she strives to do whatever it is that God asks.

Writing the story in the first person is an effective device, because it allows us to hear her voice, and to make her voice seem as real as it can to a 20th century audience.  I doubt that the wording is entirely accurate to a learned person of her age, but it is close enough that it gives us a taste.   “Lose” is “loose”, and “savage” is “salvage”.   I really liked this character, and I really liked the book a great deal.  I’ve read 3 other books by Geraldine Brooks, and I’ve loved them all.  Highly recommended.