If you want to become smitten with the brilliant Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing is the perfect book to choose. Inspired by a true story, Caleb’s Crossing follows the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wopanaak Native who “crosses” to Christianity, and “crosses” to the life of an English scholar in the mid 1600’s. The story is actually narrated by Bethia Mayfield (a fictional character), an incredibly bright, hardworking and honorable girl, who desperately wishes for the levels of education that are only afforded to the opposite sex. She therefore lives vicariously through her father’s ministry, her brother’s education, and her dear friend Caleb’s crossings. Her mastery of Caleb’s native tongue, of Latin, philosophy, and of the classics is simply from what she is able to overhear.
“How I could have astonished him, and my brother too, even then, had I opened my mouth and ventured to say, in Wompaontoaonk, that I had troubled to know them; that I knew them, in some particulars, better than father, who was their missionary and their minister. But as I have sat down here, I had learned early the value of silence, and I did not lightly give away the state of myself. So I got up from the fire then, and made myself busy, wetting yeast and flour for a sponge to use in the next day’s bread.”
You quickly become attached to Bethia, as she pines for the life of an academic, only to be offered the more common stations of “the fairer sex.” She narrates the story with affection and longing, as she follows her brother and Caleb from their home island to grammar school, and eventually to what is now known as Harvard. To help pay for her brother’s education, she works as a servant at the college, and manages to find new depths of knowledge, true love, and advanced levels of faith. As she grows into a remarkable young woman, Caleb becomes the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. His crossing has a price, however, and it’s for the reader to decide whether it was worth it.
From the early colonial history of Martha’s Vineyard, to the ministry that was devoted to turning Native Americans to Christian worshippers, Geraldine’s account is full of remarkable detail. It’s impossible to summarize her story in one review! More than once, I was struck by her prose, which more often than not read like poetry rather than a novel. You’ll love her characters, and will be swept away as you read how they cherish learning, friendship, faith, and nature. I’m sorry the story had to come to an end.
4 enthusiastic stars!