It's amazing how hearing an author speak about a book can enhance a reader's experience of that book. I must admit that Caleb's Crossing was a bit tedious for me as I began it an was trying to wade through the Native American names and vocabulary. However, after hearing Geraldine Brooks speak at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series, I had a renewed interest and could understand the high praise that the book garnered.
Set in 1660, Caleb's Crossing is the story of Bethia Mayfield and her family, her father a Puritan minister, who have broken away from mainland Massachusetts to the island of Martha's Vineyard. The title character is Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag, the first Native American graduate of Harvard University. His transition from his Indian life to that of an learned member of the colony is the crossing that Bethia describes in her journals. Tasked with keeping her family together after her mother's death, Bethia befriends Caleb and the two become students with her brother Makepeace, learning classical languages and the language of each other. When the time comes for the boys to continue their education in a more formal setting, Bethia joins them as an indentured girl in the house of Master Corlett, head of the grammar school that will prepare them for Harvard. She observes his "crossing" while developing her own independence and personality. Finally, we see Bethia as an old woman, reflecting on her life and the influences of the Christian world, the Indian culture, and the classical tenets on it.
Geraldine Brooks has an amazing way with language and and with that she immerses her readers into a culture that seems foreign, yet connected. She has perfected the prose of the colonial era and has given Bethia a credible voice. For all the servitude that she endures, she is really a feminist and her thoughts and actions show her to be true to that spirit. At the same time she is still a captive to the society and must walk that fine line. I found the second part of the novel more satisfying than the first and really still am puzzled with Brooks' titling of the book Caleb's Crossing. As Bethia grows and changes in three phases of her life, she remains the protagonist and the journey is hers. It was a good read that gives insight into an almost forgotten time and place in American history.