Caleb’s Crossing captivates readers from its opening pages, effortlessly transporting us back to 17th century New England. We immerse ourselves deeply within those harsh early years of English settlement in America. While experiencing this world in all of its raw natural beauty, acute physical discomforts, and savage brutality, we explore perennial themes of family, friendship and spirituality.
The story was inspired by the short life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wampanoag Indian who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. Existing historical archives scarcely document this phenomenal achievement and provide little detail regarding Caleb’s existence. Through exhaustive and meticulous research, Ms. Brooks assembles the facts of Caleb’s life. And with masterful use of creative license, she imagines a credible story of how Caleb could have crossed over from tribal member to Harvard scholar. Even more significant than the how, is the motivation that drives Caleb forward. This motivation goes beyond personal ambition, and enables him to endure the hardships he must surely have faced at every milestone in his journey.
Caleb’s story becomes all the more poignant because of the touching narration of Bethia Mayfield, the minister’s daughter who is a central presence within his life. From a fateful childhood encounter in the wilderness, and despite the rigid cultural and religious boundaries that should have made any fellowship forbidden, Bethia and Caleb develop an enduring relationship built upon the bedrock of mutual respect and equality. Because we experience the story from Bethia’s point of view, we feel her deep emotional bond with Caleb, and we come to know of his own devotion to her by witnessing his many selfless acts on her behalf. We grow to love these two characters as they struggle through tribulations that threaten to tear their lives apart.
Religion plays a prominent and painful role within the story, as it has throughout all of history. As we read, we remain ever conscious of the looming annihilation of the indigenous people that will occur in America, at the hands of Christians. The juxtaposition of God-centric Calvinism with tribal polytheism adds a dimension of escalating conflict to Caleb and Bethia’s relationship. But as their pure and familial love for one another grows, they develop a willingness to embrace a dual spirituality. They come to recognize that at the core of each of their faiths is a universal truth that all can share. If only more people had been enlightened in this way, perhaps there would have been a less tragic outcome in America.
In Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks paints a photo-realistic portrait of early America, while creating endearing characters whose personal journeys and adversities deeply matter to us as readers. She also raises our consciousness to the existence of a remarkable human being who navigated two worlds despite the forces that fought to bind him to one.
I fell in love with historical fiction because of Geraldine Brooks. Her epic work People of the Book resonates with me almost two full years after reading it; many of its most poignant scenes and characters continue to visit me in my quiet moments of reflection. I had waited patiently for Caleb’s Crossing, which published in April. I savored this book and am watching with joy as it quickly ascends the notable bestseller charts in the United States.