I haven’t picked up a Geraldine Brooks title since her 2001 debut novel, Year of Wonders, which promptly became an international bestseller. I definitely had that sense of ‘wow’ when I finished, but then I inexplicably ignored the rest of her titles … until I recently noticed Jennifer Ehle’s name on the audible version of Brooks’ latest (if you were lucky enough to see Ehle on stage in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, you couldn’t resist her narrating allure; her controlled, even narration doesn’t disappoint here for sure!). My iPod’s now loaded with the rest of Brooks’ novels, although I can already warn that People of the Book should be read, not listened to (narrator Edwina Wren grates incessantly with caricatures of various European accents).
Oh, but I do digress. But bear with me for just another second: when you start reading Caleb’s Crossing, ignore all urges to research any of the book’s characters or their history. What little information is available is enough to diminish the pleasure of discovery. Trust in Brooks’ most excellent storytelling to reveal the story. Address any curiosity only after you’ve finished the novel’s final page; Brooks’ “Afterword” also offers plenty of post-novel information.
Here’s a minimal overview: The Australian-born and bred Brooks, now a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, came across a few facts about one of the Vineyard’s 17th-century Native residents, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, who was a member of the Wôpanâak tribe of Noepe (now Martha’s Vineyard), and was Harvard’s first Native American graduate in 1665. “The character of Caleb as portrayed in this novel is, in every way, a work of fiction,” Brooks explains in her opening “Author’s Note.” “I have presumed to give Caleb’s name to my imagined character in the hope of honoring the struggle, sacrifice and achievement of this remarkable young scholar.”
Crossing is told through the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of the minister of a small colonial population living on the island. She is an inquisitive, intelligent girl, daring to steal an education during a time when women were systematically denied access to knowledge. Quiet and determined, Bethia learns quickly the Wampanoag language of the island’s native residents, and the Latin her father struggles to impart to her less-than-talented older brother Makepeace. She meets young Caleb when they are still children, virtually unencumbered with the expectations of their respective communities. Their mutual love of their island – and their deep respect for one another – bind them for life.
When Caleb shows great promise as a scholar, he is sent to the mainland for further study in Cambridge with Makepeace and Joel Iacoomis, another native son, to prepare them for a Harvard education; Bethia, perhaps most brilliant of them all, ironically accompanies them as a servant at the boys’ school. There, Bethia’s sharp, caring eyes are witness to Caleb’s crossing – not only from his home, but from his community and his culture – into a less-than-welcoming, challenging new life.
While the title honors the pioneering, real-life Caleb, Bethia is undoubtedly the hero here. Her unwavering determination to feed her mind despite her 17-century constraints is a timely reminder to her 21st-century readers of the absolute need for access to education for every girl around the world.
Tidbit: This much I need to share from my post-read google-ing: Last year, in May 2011, Tiffany Smalley became the first member of the Wampanoag (spelling different, yes) tribe of Martha’s Vineyard since Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk to receive a Harvard degree. Also, while Brooks was researching her novel as a Radcliffe fellow, archeologists began excavating the foundation of Harvard’s Indian College. Brooks is quoted in a 2011 Harvard Magazine article: “My dream is, they find a shard of pewter with CC carved in the bottom of it.” Oh, if only!