In 1665, a small class graduated from the college at Newtowne, later to be named Harvard College. Among those in this class were a small number of Native Americans, one of whom was known as Caleb. Though there is little documentation remaining regarding Caleb and his brethren, it is assumed that he was given a formal education (English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) by an English minister who resided on the same Massachusetts island as Caleb’s Wampanoag tribe named Thomas Meyhew.
With this slender history, Geraldine Brooks has created a story for Caleb — one that follows him from his earliest days until his graduation from Harvard College. The narrator, Bethia, is the daughter of the local minister who educates Caleb. While the minister is on a mission to convert the Native Americans on his island to Christianity, he is nevertheless a liberal man who shares the island fairly with the Indians and is unfailingly respectful to them.
Bethia, who has learned the Wampanoag language from listening to her father, meets Caleb while out wandering the island when they are both quite young. As their friendship grows and changes we follow both of them as they each try to reach their potential in the white man’s world.
The story is riveting, and takes the reader back to a time when America was just beginning to find its footing in the new world. While the times are far removed, Brooks reminds us that some truths are universal and timeless. Caleb’s Crossing is an excellent contribution to the literary cannon from one of our most inestimable authors.
Viking/Penguin; ISBN 978-0-67002-104-8; $26.95.