“Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks is an historical novel depicting life in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Caleb’s own crossing between cultures is seen and narrated through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, who is 12 years old when the story begins.
Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the protagonist of this novel was a real person, the son of a Wampanoag leader who actually graduated from Harvard in 1665. Harvard was founded in 1636, and according to the author, “the 1650 charter describes its mission as “the education of the English and Indian youth of this country,” that is, to convert the Indians and assimilate them into English society. Several Native Americans did attend Harvard during those early years.
The author writes beautifully of how difficult it must have been for those students to live with the Puritan strictures. Bethia, an enlightened woman, is able to see the best and worst of both societies. However, the Puritans were pretty much of one mind. Their beliefs and their God were the only way. In 1660 Bethia belongs to a community of pioneers and Puritans that has broken away from John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony to settle on Martha’s Vineyard.
In this novel Brooks accurately writes about little-known characters and events from the American past, placing them in a setting where one can feel and see our land at that time. The author’s meticulous research is evident and has given rise to a poignant novel.
The facts of Caleb’s life are fascinating. As the story unfolds, Caleb, who was born around 1640, struggles to live in both culturest. Caleb and Bethia both push against boundaries – Caleb as a Native American and Bethia, denied an education because of her sex, who is indentured with no say in the matter. Both are hungry for learning
Puritan life was harsh. Many Native Americans died from brutality, poverty and illness. Caleb, like all the other Native Americans in this experiment, died young. After a while Native Americans stopped attending Harvard.
“Caleb’s Crossing” was released at the same time as an important Harvard University event took place. This past May (2011) a degree was awarded to Tiffany Smalley, the first Martha’s Vineyard member of the Wampanoag tribe since Caleb to graduate.