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Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks.

January 6, 2014

Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks.  Penguin Books (2012), Edition: Paperback, 336 page.


A poignant historical about Puritans and Native Americans in Massachusetts in the mid-1600s.

Caleb is an historical figure, the first Indian boy to graduate from Harvard in its early days. Geraldine Brooks takes what little is known about him and his world to create her own version of who he was. Bethia, who narrates the story, is a totally fictitious Puritan girl growing up on the island we now call Martha’s Vineyard. Originally from Australia, Brooks herself lives on Martha’s Vineyard. Her acknowledgments trace how imagining Caleb’s story has been a long-term labor of love. Her deep emersion in the history of the region allows her to give readers a detailed picture of the lives of both the Native American and the Puritan communities, a picture that accurately conveys the most recent and accepted historical scholarship. In addition to being a well-written story, her book is worth reading for the historical knowledge and understanding it contains

As the story begins, Bethia, age twelve, frequently rambles alone around the island on which her family lives. She meets Caleb and the two become friends, teaching each other their languages. Bethia gives Caleb her catechism and thus begins his education into Puritan life and thought that will eventually take him away from his own people. My only problem with the book was my difficulty believing such a friendship would have been possible for these characters. I find it hard to believe that as a Puritan girl approaching adolescence, Bethia would be allowed so much leisure to wander free and unaccompanied around the island. The ability of Bethia and Caleb to learn each other’s language also seems questionable.

None the less, Caleb comes to study classical languages under Bethia’s father. Eventually he goes to Cambridge to continue his studies and eventually enters Harvard where he is viewed as something of a prodigy. Bethia also finds herself in Cambridge where she is drawn to the intellectual excitement she finds there. As a girl she she is excluded from participating in it. Tragedies ensue. In the last section of the book, Bethia is an old woman remembering what happened before and after Caleb’s graduation.

As always, Brooks writes well, revealing the beauty of the island that she and her characters love. “This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of deepest velvet.” In comparison to her beloved island, Cambridge and Harvard are smelly, dirty, and crowded. Cambridge, however, offers the possibility of its libraries and the learning which Bethia craves.

One of Brooks’ accomplishments in this book is her creation of Bethia and the seventeenth-century language which Bethia would have used. While never different enough from modern English to hinder the reader, it subtly conveys that he story belongs to a different time and place. Bethia is a proper Puritan girl, but she comes to question the restrictions that apply to her because she is a woman. The limits that Puritans put on women were strict. They could not speak in church and must always obey the men who have authority over them. Bethia cannot take part in the lessons that her father gives her slower-witted brother. The final straw is that her grandfather forces her into indentured servitude so that her brother can further his education, a dream which he lacks the ability to fulfill. Yet Bethia is able to profit from the situation as a few other Puritan women did.

Brooks also leads her characters to question the wisdom of standard Calvinist orthodoxy and the superiority of Puritan cultural over that in which Caleb grew up. Caleb does not “cross” to over the English because he believes their ways are best. Instead he believes they will prevail, and he wants to be able to help his people deal with them. He tries to explain to Bethia that the English are like grains of sand, each grain tiny but mixed ed together they will destroy his people.

There is no end to you. You will pour across this land, and we will be smothered. Your stone walls, your dead trees, the hooves of your strange beasts trampling the clam beds….Your walls will rise everywhere until they shut us out. You will turn the land upside down with your ploughs until all our hunting grounds are gone….God prospers you, and protects you and keeps from you the sicknesses against which [native shamans’] power are as nothing. So, this is what I see: We must find favor with your God, or die.

Because Bethia sees the value in the life Calbel had given up to attend Harvard, she is more able than others to see what he had accomplished and what he had sacrificed.

You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, and your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man may say the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable.

I strongly recommend Caleb’s Crossing. Overall it reflects the best current historical research available into early interactions between the English and the Indigenous people of North American. It is important in breaking down widespread assumptions that all Indians were like those involved in the wars with settlers in the late 1800s. For Australian readers, it provides a comparison with their own nation’s initial settlement a century and a half later. And the book excels as simply an enjoyable novel.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2014 8:50 pm

    Great review Marilyn. I had the odd concern about it, but it’s a powerful story and Brooks is a great story-teller. And, its themes are relevant today as we live with the results of our respective occupations of someone else’s land.


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