How does a Pilgrim girl who is confined to housework and cooking and not allowed to learn, despite being smarter than her brother, survive in colonial America? In Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks follows Bethia Mayfield’s life on a small colonial island, now Martha’s Vineyard, in the 1660s as she befriend’s a boy from the local Native American Wampanoag tribe, secretly listens to her brother’s lessons, and goes about doing what was appropriate for girls in those days.
Although Brooks titled her book after Caleb, the Native American who learns to read, speak in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, attends Harvard, and ultimately leaves behind his own native life – hence the “crossing over,” the story is really about Bethia, renamed “Storm Eyes” by Caleb. As Bethia narrates the action, rereading her notes as an old woman on her deathbed, the difficult life of a woman during that time emerges. Not only is she not permitted lessons, at one point she is sold into indentured service for four years as an exchange for her brother’s tuition, room and board at Harvard.
Brooks sprinkles the story with well-researched information about the times: the untimely death of mothers and babes, the strained relationships between the settled Christians, the newly converted Indians, and those native Americans who want to sustain their gods and their own way of life. The suspicion of the newcomers and their beliefs comes to a face-off between the medicine man who is Caleb’s uncle, and Bethia’s father, a minister and healer. Bethia’s father is the winner, saving the chief’s life, but when the chief does not gratefully succumb to the Christian teaching, he dies later – and his death is attributed to an angry God, prompting converts.
As a result of a number of family deaths, Caleb, his friend Joel, and Makepeace, Bethia’s brother, leave the island to attend a Harvard prep school; Bethia accompanies them, only to be a servant at the school. Through her research, Brooks found evidence of two Indians attending and completing studies at Harvard, and creates an imaginary life for them in her story. Although Brooks uses the friendship of Bethia and Caleb as the pivotal tool for the action, from their childhood and into their adult lives, she is careful to keep their relationship as brother and sister, even creating a love interest, an older man of letters, for Bethia at Harvard.
Brooks does her homework, and infuses historical facts into her fiction, but she is also a realist. Her nonfiction changed perceptions in Nine Parts of Desire – and her acclaimed story March won her a Pulitzer prize. In Caleb’s Crossing, the hardships and prejudices are not tempered, and although Bethia finds her way to learning, it is through the back door. No happy endings here…
Is it ever thus, at the end of things? Does any woman ever count the grains of her harvest and say: Good enough? Or does one always think of what more one might have laid in, had the labor been harder, the ambition more vast, the choices more sage? …I find myself smiling at that…young girl, her daring and her folly and her many fears.”
Once again, Geraldine Brooks has written a good story – suspenseful and insightful – worth reading.