Published: May 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction
Caleb’s Crossing is a story that revolves around not only Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665, but the characters of Joel Iacoombs, another native American, Bethia Mayfield, the fictitious narrator, and her brother, Makepeace Mayfield, a slow-witted, struggling student who attempts Harvard at the same time. The story begins on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1650’s by detailing the meeting and intertwining of the lives of the four characters.
Bethia is the daughter of an English minister who performs extensive missionary work trying to convert the people of the Wampanoag tribe. Her father is an educated man who creates an extensive thirst for education in his daughter, but quickly tries to extinguish it when she begins to surpass her elder brother, Makepeace, who does not care much for his studies. Bethia struggles throughout the story to educate herself through reading, eavesdropping, and writing. Education, at the time, consisted of studies predominantly in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Her drive to educate herself during this time period was truly incredible. Her story runs through the core of the novel as she studies, as she is indentured to a schoolmaster to pay for her brother’s schooling, and as she marries an educated man who challenges her intellectually.
Caleb’s story crosses with that of Bethia when they meet as young children running wild on the island. Their friendship must be hidden when Caleb comes to live with the Mayfields in order to receive a white man’s education. Although they hide their friendship to most people, the two along with Joel Iacoombs, remain fast friends through the years of school on the island, boarding school in Cambridge, and finally throughout the boys’ years at Harvard. Bethia looks after the boys and champions their cause in her own quiet way. The friendship between these three is strong and emotional.
The characters have a wonderful depth to them that evokes strong emotions. The voice, heavy with the language of the time period, draws the reader deeply into the era. The Indian words were a bit intimidating at first, but once I was used to them, they flowed through the novel. The research on life in the seventeenth century feels authentic and genuine. I feel the author did an amazing job in this area.
This book is an excellent read. I loved the book and the voice behind the story. This novel was so enjoyable that I immediately started listening to one of Brook’s previous novels, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague. Watch for the review of that novel to follow.