Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

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Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A wonderfully evocative story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665 as told through the eyes of his childhood friend, the daughter of a Puritan minister.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Fourth Estate
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0007333530

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Let's start, as Geraldine Brooks has, with a fact: in 1665 the first Native American, Caleb Cheeshateaumauk, graduated from Harvard College. Around this, Brooks has created a wholly fictional story (the known facts are so few that this is largely unavoidable). The stroke of genius here is to put the story into the words of the entirely fictitious Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of an English minister on what we now call Martha's Vinyard, where Caleb lived in the Wampanoag tribe. At various points in her life, Bethia sets down events concerning her early secret friendship with Caleb on the island, to accompanying him and her brother to Harvard and the subsequent events.

Caleb's education - conducted in a mixture of Greek, Latin and Hebrew - was funded by rich English patrons keen to spread the word of God to the heathen natives. Other natives had attended Harvard but no one before Caleb saw it through to graduation. Not long after Caleb graduated though, vicious fighting broke out on the mainland between the settlers and the natives and all attempts at working with the native inhabitants where abandoned. The degree to which the details of this remarkable story match reality may be open to question, but that's really not the point. It is a terrific, touching and moving story that rightly celebrates Caleb's amazing achievements (as well as those of his friend Joel), graduating alongside the sons of the colonial elite.

In the final analysis, this isn't really so much about Caleb, as it is about the life of a young, brave, independent-minded young girl. The Puritan settlers' treatment of women was oppressive to say the least to modern eyes; the clearly intelligent Bethia was not permitted to be educated while her dullard older brother, Makepeace, ends up at Harvard with Caleb. The life of the early settlers was undoubtedly difficult, although perhaps things could have been easier for them if they hadn't been so determined to convert the natives to their Puritan religion, and Brooks wonderfully evokes this time.

The language of Bethia is of the period - think more Arthur Miller's The Crucible (the Salem Witch Trials were in 1692) than Jacobean English (Shakespeare died in 1616). So while there are some terms that might not be familiar to us today and some slightly archaic wording, the meaning is clear and it gives a sense of authenticity to the voice of the narrator.

There's plenty of trauma and heartache along the way - times were hard for the settlers so don't expect happy endings all round. But running through the heart of the story is a tale of love and adventure. Bethia gains from young Caleb a greater appreciation of the local environment but is scared of the mystical pagan rites practised by the pawaaws that seem, to her at least, as communion with Satan. It's this boundary between the two cultures that Bethia and Caleb so movingly explore.

It's a fascinating story, evocatively and absorbingly told. Highly recommended.

Our thanks to the good people fo Fourth Estate for bringing this wonderful book to our attention. We also have a review of People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.

For more New England settler tales, then The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan is equally enthralling, while for more strong-minded independent females in an entirely different setting, then the Orange Prize listed The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone will be right up your street.

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