After finishing “Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks, I quickly searched online for reviews. I was eager for more — I simply did not want to let go of the story or the characters. I can assure you, this novel is garnering some high praise.
Perhaps what is most moving about “Caleb’s Crossing,” is that we already know how the history of the people portrayed within the novel played out. This is not to say that all of the characters are based on historical figures, however. Some are real, others are fictionalized. But Brooks, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, has done her homework, and does her best to portray historical events as recorded and archived.
In 1660, Bethia Mayfield is living within her grandfather’s community on Martha’s Vineyard — a refuge from the stringent customs of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts colony. The indigenous Wampanoag population have relinquished a portion of their land to Bethia’s grandfather and fellow English settlers, though Bethia stipulates the Native American elders had little understanding of the details of the deal made before her birth.
The daughter of a minister, Bethia is privy to information concerning her community and the indigenous population only because she overhears conversation amongst her community’s elders. Both her father and grandfather wish to live in peace with the Wampanoag, and her father especially hopes to convert them to Christianity. But Bethia is privy to more than just the goings-on of her community. In fact, because her father hopes Bethia’s brother Makepeace will follow him into the ministry, she is exposed to all manner of scholarly learning — quickly overshadowing her elder brother in his schoolwork.
Because her mind is so apt to language lessons, Bethia’s father soon realizes that her education must be put to an end, so as to save the confidence of his only son. Bethia is therefore sent forth from the home during study hours, but this doesn’t mean her education ends. In fact — her education is merely beginning.
In wandering about within the wilderness (so as to stay out of the house during Makepeace’s lessons), Bethia finds a friend in a young Wampanoag named Cheeshahteaumauck — Caleb, as she calls him. In turn, Caleb names Bethia “Storm Eyes,” in reference to her pale eyes. But this name, it would seem, is a metaphor for Bethia herself, who pays witness to social injustices and struggles within to follow God’s will — and thus the will of her grandfather, father and brother — and to seek out what she ultimately desires, the right to an education and peace amongst the neighboring communities.
Well researched, carefully crafted, artfully written, Brooks has yet again created a protagonist and narration that readers will have little difficulty relating to. Perhaps the strangest aspect of this novel is that the title would lead one to believe that Caleb will be the focus. While Bethia’s narration does cover his progression over the years, it is Bethia that the story centers around. The two characters often provide a mirror to one another, and it is through the years that the two — while steadfast friends — are rarely in the same state of mind at the same time.
I would highly recommend this read. For those who have read the book and wish to learn more about those characters based in history, check out this link. A warning, however, as the information will give away details of the novel and therefore reveal its conclusion.