Caleb’s Crossing is set in colonial New England, mostly during the 1660s, and tells the story of an English puritan girl, Bethia, whose friendship with Native American Caleb has unusual consequences – Caleb becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.
Bethia and Caleb grow up on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, which author Brooks portrays as a lush paradise. Bethia is the daughter of a minister and longs for a classical education, something not available to girls at the time. But her father is an educated man who provides lessons to his son, so Bethia is able to discreetly eavesdrop and soak up what knowledge she can. Caleb, on the other hand, is the son of a local tribal leader and seems to be part of the land – free, vibrant, and a little wild. The two meet when they’re in their early teens and become fast friends. Bethia teaches him English and how to read, which ignites Caleb’s intellectual curiosity.
A series of events brings Caleb under Bethia’s father’s tutelage, where he thrives, and then other events take Bethia and Caleb to Cambridge, where Caleb’s mind thrives but his body wastes. Removing Caleb from the island was like uprooting a thriving flower and transplanting it to a harsh environment, hoping it will grow with little nourishment or warmth. It was sad and gave me something to think about – was Caleb’s accomplishment really worth the price?
There are other deep themes in Caleb’s Crossing that will also give your brain cells a good workout. One is the pursuit of knowledge by women who were denied a formal education and the other is about how organized religion interprets how God wants us to live our lives. Those were also very strong themes in The Weight of Ink, in which the female protagonist, who scribed for an aging rabbi, illicitly pursued an almost obsessive need to know the answers to some fundamental philosophical and theological questions. I have to admit, because I know I’m among friends, that for the first half of Caleb’s Crossing I thought Geraldine Brooks also wrote The Weight of Ink because the themes are so very similar. I thought that she must just feel really strongly about these particular themes to have written two books about them. However, Rachel Kadish wrote The Weight of Ink. My mistake, but it’s interesting to compare how the two authors executed the themes.
I found Caleb’s Crossing interesting and often absorbing. The historical setting, complex themes, and multi-layered characters really kept my attention, plus the writing was top-notch. However, a couple of things bothered me. The book was narrated by Bethia and we learn a lot about her life and thoughts, so much so that Caleb often seems like a very distant secondary character. Given the title, I think the book needed more about Caleb. The second thing that bothered me a bit is the way the author ended the book. She immerses us in the detailed lives of the characters in 1660s Cambridge and then suddenly whisks us 50 years into the future to have Bethia finish the rest of the story in a deathbed journal entry. It was jarring, but then again I’ve never had to end a novel so maybe I shouldn’t judge.
I recommend Caleb’s Crossing to people who like historical fiction, especially those that enjoyed The Weight of Ink. 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation, Martha!
What are you reading these days?
Please stay healthy and safe!