Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

I haven’t picked up a Geraldine Brooks title since her 2001 debut novel, Year of Wonders, which promptly became an international bestseller. I definitely had that sense of ‘wow’ when I finished, but then I inexplicably ignored the rest of her titles … until I recently noticed Jennifer Ehle’s name on the audible version of Brooks’ latest (if you were lucky enough to see Ehle on stage in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, you couldn’t resist her narrating allure; her controlled, even narration doesn’t disappoint here for sure!). My iPod’s now loaded with the rest of Brooks’ novels, although I can already warn that People of the Book should be read, not listened to (narrator Edwina Wren grates incessantly with caricatures of various European accents).

Oh, but I do digress. But bear with me for just another second: when you start reading Caleb’s Crossing, ignore all urges to research any of the book’s characters or their history. What little information is available is enough to diminish the pleasure of discovery. Trust in Brooks’ most excellent storytelling to reveal the story. Address any curiosity only after you’ve finished the novel’s final page; Brooks’ “Afterword” also offers plenty of post-novel information.

Here’s a minimal overview: The Australian-born and bred Brooks, now a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, came across a few facts about one of the Vineyard’s 17th-century Native residents, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, who was a member of the Wôpanâak tribe of Noepe (now Martha’s Vineyard), and was Harvard’s first Native American graduate in 1665. “The character of Caleb as portrayed in this novel is, in every way, a work of fiction,” Brooks explains in her opening “Author’s Note.” “I have presumed to give Caleb’s name to my imagined character in the hope of honoring the struggle, sacrifice and achievement of this remarkable young scholar.”

Crossing is told through the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of the minister of a small colonial population living on the island. She is an inquisitive, intelligent girl, daring to steal an education during a time when women were systematically denied access to knowledge. Quiet and determined, Bethia learns quickly the Wampanoag language of the island’s native residents, and the Latin her father struggles to impart to her less-than-talented older brother Makepeace. She meets young Caleb when they are still children, virtually unencumbered with the expectations of their respective communities. Their mutual love of their island – and their deep respect for one another – bind them for life.

When Caleb shows great promise as a scholar, he is sent to the mainland for further study in Cambridge with Makepeace and Joel Iacoomis, another native son, to prepare them for a Harvard education; Bethia, perhaps most brilliant of them all, ironically accompanies them as a servant at the boys’ school. There, Bethia’s sharp, caring eyes are witness to Caleb’s crossing – not only from his home, but from his community and his culture – into a less-than-welcoming, challenging new life.

While the title honors the pioneering, real-life Caleb, Bethia is undoubtedly the hero here. Her unwavering determination to feed her mind despite her 17-century constraints is a timely reminder to her 21st-century readers of the absolute need for access to education for every girl around the world.

Tidbit: This much I need to share from my post-read google-ing: Last year, in May 2011, Tiffany Smalley became the first member of the Wampanoag (spelling different, yes) tribe of Martha’s Vineyard since Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk to receive a Harvard degree. Also, while Brooks was researching her novel as a Radcliffe fellow, archeologists began excavating the foundation of Harvard’s Indian College. Brooks is quoted in a 2011 Harvard Magazine article: “My dream is, they find a shard of pewter with CC carved in the bottom of it.” Oh, if only!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Australian, Native American

5 responses to “Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

  1. A wonderful story and great characters, so tragic really.

    Here is a link to my review if you are interested.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your review! So enjoy becoming an instant community on the web! And thanks, too, for sharing that haunting woodcut of Caleb and Joel by Annie Bissett!

      My post for People of the Book should go up shortly … and I’m planning on starting March today. Doing a quick catch-up on all titles by Geraldine Brooks. She’s QUITE the fascinating writer … an Australian now living in the U.S., who’s written about Islamic women, British women during the plague, Native Americans and colonials, a family during the U.S. Civil War. I think People is the only title featuring an Australian protagonist, and hers is only the framing story … the rest of the characters are quite scattered.

      Am quite intrigued with what she’ll come up with next!

      Your “About” page says you’re in the south of France now … we lived briefly in Antibes B.C. (that is, Before Children). Was rather like being on constant holiday! And also lived in London twice, also B.C. Perhaps we’ve even crossed paths!

      Thanks so much for visiting BookDragon. Looking forward to sharing more titles …

  2. Isn’t the woodcut great, I contacted the artist to ask if I could use it and on her website saw images of how it came into being, truly a beautiful artwork, I like it even more than the now famous painted artwork that was recently put in the Harvard wall of fame of Caleb.

    I see you like cross-cultural fiction and we have a lot in common, I came here to France when the children were 2 & 3 years and was in London for 8 years (B.C too).

    Geraldine Brooks has made quite a name for herself in the US since the Pulitzer and I love how well researched her books are. I haven’t read The People of the Book, but that might my next Brooks.

    • Please do link your review of People if and when you read it …

      Thus far, I think my favorite Brooks is Year of Wonders. Since more than a decade has passed since I read it, however, I might be looking back with more nostalgia than a critical eye. The mind blurs in old age! I hope all this reading keeps what’s left of the addled grey matter fairly intact for a few more decades at least!

      And yes, we certainly have international addresses and multi-culti reads in common. No xenophobia in our vocabulary!

      Thanks again for sharing!

  3. Pingback: March by Geraldine Brooks | BookDragon

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