Caleb's Crossing: A Novel
  • Caleb's Crossing: A Novel
  • Caleb's Crossing: A Novel

Caleb's Crossing: A Novel

3.6 242
by Geraldine Brooks

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A richly imagined new novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller, People of the Book.

Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha's Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold,

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A richly imagined new novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller, People of the Book.

Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha's Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.

The narrator of Caleb's Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island's glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe's shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb's crossing of cultures.

Like Brooks's beloved narrator Anna in Year of Wonders, Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha's Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart. Evocative and utterly absorbing, Caleb's Crossing further establishes Brooks's place as one of our most acclaimed novelists.

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Editorial Reviews

Heller McAlpin

"Who are we, really? Are our souls shaped, our fates written in full by God, before we draw our first breath? Do we make ourselves, by the choices we our selves make? Or are we clay merely, that is molded and pushed into the shape that our betters propose for us?"

These are pressing concerns for the spirited young heroine of Geraldine Brooks's absorbing new historical novel, Caleb's Crossing. Bethia Mayfield's forbidden friendship with Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wôpanâak tribe of Martha's Vineyard, whom she first meets as a 12-year-old sent to dig clams for her family's supper, changes both their lives. While Caleb teaches Bethia to walk silently through woods without leaving a trail and to name and gather the island's wild bounty, she teaches him to read and speak English. Over time, she helps this "half-naked, sassafras-scented heathen anointed with raccoon grease" make the crossing between his native traditions and her English Christian culture to become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, in 1665.

While Caleb is loosely based on an actual person, born around 1646, Brooks's narrator, Bethia Mayfield, is a wholly fictional creation. With this headstrong, intelligent heroine who chafes against the constrained status of women imposed upon her by her patriarchal minister father and magistrate grandfather, Brooks returns to several pet themes prominently featured in her last two books -- Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005) and People of the Book (2007): the sexism, racial prejudices, religious strictures, and pedagogical practices of earlier eras. In Brooks's novels, a high value is placed on books and scholarship.

Bethia, like Brooks's other sympathetic young heroines, leans toward modern, proto-feminist sensibilities -- which makes it easy for contemporary readers to empathize and identify with her struggles. How enraging that her brother Makepeace, a poor, small-minded student, gets to study Latin and Greek, which she can only pick up by eavesdropping while slaving over his dirty linens and daily bread! How frustrating that "silence was a woman's sole safe harbor." The effect, at times, has the simple forcefulness of children's literature aimed at stirring a sense of righteous indignation in order to deliver reverberating, historically derived moral lessons. (Kathryn Stockett's The Help similarly manipulates our emotions by playing our enlightened, liberal sensibilities about race and domestic help against nasty attitudes from the not-so-distant past.)

Born and raised in Australia, Brooks sets her books in places she knows firsthand: parts of March unfold near her Virginia residence, and parts of People of the Book are set in Bosnia, where she worked as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Caleb's Crossing is rooted in Martha's Vineyard, Brooks's current home -- and her love for the island comes through in lush descriptions of its natural beauty: "This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet," she writes.

The effectiveness of historical fiction depends to a great extent on voice and details, and Brooks again proves her mastery of both. Bethia's narrative is steeped in a world where misfortunes -- including the untimely deaths of several siblings and her parents -- are thought to be just punishment by a vengeful God for sins that include "thirsting for forbidden knowledge" and despair: "Break God's laws and suffer ye his wrath. Well, and so I do. The Lord lays his hand sore upon me, as I bend under the toil I now have -- mother's and mine, both. The tasks stretch out from the gray slough before dawn to the guttered taper of night," 15-year-old Bethia writes.

Brooks captures both the cadences and attitudes of English colonists with vocabulary to match: "square cap" for scholar, "salvage" for savage, and "sennight" for week. An unmarried pregnant woman is "bastard-bellied," "harlotized," and "forwhored." In contrast with her beloved home in bright and airy Great Harbor -- now called Edgartown -- Bethia describes the "smear and stench of English industry" in the "unlovely town" of Cambridge, where she is indentured as a servant in exchange for her brother's tuition at Master Corbett's Latin preparatory school: "cold and clemmed, and all is drudgery."

The story of Caleb's experiences at Harvard is less familiar than Bethia's personal saga of a young woman making her way in the world against cultural obstacles. Grounded in research -- including a "hair-tearingly aggravating" early history of the college replete with "reflexive racism" -- Brooks's animation of this little-known facet of American history underscores why one reads historical fiction. In an afterword, the author helpfully sets the record straight "by distinguishing scant fact from rampant invention." She also notes that, while other Native Americans from Martha's Vineyard have completed graduate degrees at Harvard since 1665, it is only this spring that the first Wôpanâak from the island since Caleb is due to receive an undergraduate degree there -- and a woman, no less. Progress!

--Heller McAlpin

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years


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Caleb's Crossing 3.6 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 242 reviews.
nyauthoress More than 1 year ago
The best historical fiction takes historical fact and pulls us in by creating interest in characters of the time period. Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is one of the most versatile historical fiction writers of today. Her talent lays in takes a slice of history and creating a world we long to enter. Imaginatively conceived and exquisitely written with compelling characters, Caleb's Crossing will command your attention and demand your respect. 1660. Great Harbor (now Martha's Vineyard), Massachusetts. Bethia Mayfield anticipates the arrival of Caleb, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, to her home for tutoring with her minister father. Unperceived by her family, she and Caleb, who share a love of nature, have learned each other's languages and formed a friendship over the past few years. Her brother and Caleb, the first Native American to do so, enter Cambridge to prepare for studies at Harvard. Bethia feels at a loss when she leaves Martha's Vineyard to become a servant in the headmaster's home. Her love of learning prods her secret vigilance in listening to all the lessons. Integral elements of the remarkable Caleb's Crossing are joy in learning, unexpected death, heartbreaking starvation, and the ever-present bond between Caleb and Bethia despite all hardship and prejudice against their bond. Knowledge equals power in this unique book. Caleb says, "And since it seems that knowledge is no respecter of boundaries, I will take it wheresoever I can.if necessary, I will go into the dark to get it." Intrigued? You will find yourself reading in a leisurely fashion to fully savor the evocative prose. "And then I woke, on my cold pallet in this stranger's kitchen, with ice winds from the cracked window fingering my flesh and a snowflake melting slowly on the fireless hearth." The characters are absorbing. The soulful narrative voice of Bethia has an ethereal quality. She is haunted by guilt, taking upon herself blame for a smallpox outbreak, a death during the delivery of a baby-all because of her secret relationship with Caleb. Caleb yearns to be a Pawaaw, or healer of his people. For him, knowledge respects no boundaries. He glows with appreciation of life, zest for learning, curiosity and love of nature. The release of Caleb's Crossing coincides with an important Harvard University event. This May a degree will be awarded to Tiffany Smalley, the first Martha's Vineyard member of the Wampanoag tribe since Caleb to graduate. An official portrait of Caleb will be painted in commemoration. To what does Caleb cross? Read Caleb's Crossing to find out. In the book, Ms. Brooks highlights this question: What are the effects of attempting to Christianize an already spiritual, established civilization? Her own opinion is not expressed. Instead, she tells Caleb's story with forthrightness and clarity, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions. I thank Viking for providing a copy. The opinions expressed unbiased and solely that of the reviewer. Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
racheldevenishford More than 1 year ago
In writing Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks took a sliver of history, some notations on a page, and gave them flesh. Brooks gives us a view of history, opens it to us so that the reader can feel, when she looks up from the last page, as though she has become someone else. Maybe a Puritan in the seventeenth century. Or a member of the Wampanoag tribe that is rocked under the heft of the colonists that landed on it. Brooks does an excellent job of portraying the sorrow and hardships that both people faced in the time of colonization. She shows the difficulties of the colonists with acute vision and sympathy, while giving weight to their clumsiness and grave mistakes. She shows the beauty and simplicity of the Wampanoag way of life. In her words we feel the confusion of two peoples trying to live together, and all the misunderstanding and sorrow that ensues. Brooks skillfully juxtaposes the hardness of the Puritan brand of spirituality, and the softness of the people themselves. One gets the sense, in Bethia's father, that he is deeply loving and kind, while still maintaining a kind of cultural disfavor toward something like the education of his daughter. For me the high points of the novel existed within the description of the island. I was wrapped up in the beauty of Martha's Vineyard before it had been built up, civilized. Phrases like this were abundant. ", sun scoured afternoons when the shore curved away in its glistening arc toward the distant bluffs." I am there. I loved watching as Caleb taught Bethia his knowledge of the island, how to be at ease in the place that she lived. And the relationship between Caleb and Bethia was the best aspect of the book. In Bethia's words, "He was, quite simply, my dearest friend." I had difficulty in the matter of Bethia's own crossing. I believed in her understanding and friendship with Caleb, in her love of the island and nature, in her attraction to ritual and dance, but certain events left me behind. I wasn't sure that a girl like her would go as far as she went. I won't give a spoiler now. I don't believe that the ideas on religion were entirely unbiased. I believe the author meant to be, but I think the ideas were delicately flavored away from the ideas of the Puritans, which is perhaps difficult not to do when they cultivated such rigidity as allowed them to punish women by beating them. To be friends from two races at that time was a dangerous thing. As Caleb crosses from one world to the other, Bethia questions whether her influence in his life was purely benign. These questions, whether there is possibility of the transfer of ideals from one culture to another, form the framework of the book. The suffering and heartbreak are evident, and in the end I was filled with a keen wish that we could do it all over. Tread with softness and respect, more like Bethia, rather than stomping with boots like the men of the past.
DEVILICIOUS More than 1 year ago
CALEB'S CROSSING is an emotionally engaging and deeply moving work, a wonderful and moving story of two people trying to find their place in the world and the long road to reach their goal. Opening in 1660, in Martha's Vineyard, Caleb was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, the author paints a vivid portrait of life in Puritan New England. This story is a universal theme of jealousy, of disillusioned passion, of religious disagreements, and of un-reached potential. This one makes you grateful to have been born in this era!
ElectraMagnet More than 1 year ago
This novel is a beautifully written story, and I think it captures the harsh difficulties of 17th century New England. It's particularly effective in describing the fragility of life in the colonial world, the futility of a woman's position in society, and the dominance of religious influence. The storyline is compelling, and at times it was quite moving. But something about this never clicked, and I'm struggling to identify why it didn't. I think the biggest problem is this: Though this book endeavors to tell Caleb's story, it really ends up being about Bethia. Caleb is just too simple... too compartmentalized. Like the "George Washington never told a lie" version of the man. In fact, many of the characters are a little underdeveloped, and this gives the story a kind of breezy feel. Everything is just a bit too convenient, as if characters are drawn out in a way to move a story along... not because they're people with real depth. To sum up: It's a good novel. But not a great one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As expected based on the Author's other books, I thoroughly enjoyed Caleb's crossing. The author created vivid pictures in my mind and I had a hard time putting the book down. A very interesting and believable story with many subtle lessons as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great history book, back in the times when the Pilgrims landed at Great Harbor and what a beautiful land for Caleb and the change of life for both Caleb and Bethia, English was not spoken as today. At the end with all the education, it end up very sad for Caleb and his friend Joel. Great book of what it must have been back in the 1600.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked this book but I did not love it.  
Dutrieux More than 1 year ago
Caleb's Crossing should be required reading for every student. Bethia's journey to womanhood took place in the most diffulcult of times for women and female children. Early settlement days. Her courage and bravery in this stifilling environment was so amazing but, I am sure it spoke for many women. Her meeting with Caleb was an awaking for Bethia and for me. Caleb taught us how we should be behaving towards our fellow man. I would recommend this story to all children eight and over.
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This is a winning read for anybody that loves a good mix of fiction & history. Brooks has done her research and developed a beleivable story line of remarkable characters. Enjoyed every word. The book ends with an unpredictable finish to an interesting story.
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MDTuck More than 1 year ago
Geraldine Brooks is a master at research of the era she determines to write about. The characters are believable and the premise comes through that almost 400 years later we still struggle with inequality and prejudices in many areas - geographically and personally. The writing is melodic and beautifully descriptive of island life and the environmental surroundings. I learned a lot about education in the 17thc in the colonies.
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This is a must read for anyone concerned with the past in the education of the native american people. Its also a good fiction read with strong female input.
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