Book Review: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

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Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of a young man, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, from Martha’s Vineyard who, in 1665, was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. It is narrated through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a missionary, in a small community of pioneers and puritans. It is she that meets Caleb as a twelve year-old girl, and a secret friendship is formed as they are drawn into the alien world of the other.

It is a truly absorbing book, told in the first person narrative, as Bethia lays down her memoirs, allowing you into the mind of a girl frustrated by the limitations of her gender and her role in life.  She longs for the life of her brother Makepeace, an inept scholar, which takes him with all the opportunities of his gender to Boston for study.  Bethia schools in secret from her place in the kitchen, compounding the sin of her friendship with Caleb. She is conflicted with her desire and the pious doctrines of the Calvinist faith.

Bethia transports you to a vividly drawn world some 350 years before our own.  Brooks’ language is delicious, at times almost poetic, with old English terms and words scattered throughout, adding a level of authenticity in the narrative.

The characters are beautifully drawn and observed, with connections woven back and forth in the story. It is easy to care for each of them as they are real and complex, and I was moved to tears at their times of tragedy.  The outcome is known from the start, but this does not betray the real story through Bethia’s observations, which kept the pages turning.

If I had to choose a favourite part it would be the joyful young Bethia roaming the island with her secret friend. The description of the landscape is vivid, as is the tension of her own actions, which leads to her conviction that she is punished for the sins that she has committed. A theme that echoes throughout the book, with her memoir forming her main confession.

Brooks’ main theme of prejudice is ever present in her novel, without tipping away from the sharp observations of every day living. This is the book’s joy; the conflict of racial tension is observed through the treatment of the Wampanoag, the Native American, by the settlers on the island and in Harvard itself. War, piracy and murder all play roles in the unfolding story – much of it revealed through the quiet, keenly observant Bethia.

Caleb’s Crossing is a towering book, full of pathos, sympathy and tension.  I found it to be a deeply engaging and absorbing read. The characters of Caleb and Bethia, and the issues they raised, have remained with me long after I set down the book, bringing life and context to a period of history I realised I really knew little of.

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