Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb & Joel, Harvard College woodblock print by Annie Bissett

Geraldine Brooks delves into a period of history around 1665 combining fictional characters with the intriguing and real-life characters of two Wôpanâak tribe members, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and Joel Iacoombs, inhabitants of the 200sqkm island of Noepe, (Martha’s Vineyard) located south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and the first Native Americans to attend Harvard College.

Thank you to Annie Bisset for allowing me to use her wonderful woodblock print of Caleb and Joel, click to learn more about these real life characters and to see Annie’s excellent artwork.

Bethia is the daughter of a Minister who has ambitions to convert the Wôpanâak people to Christianity. Though they live on the same island, it is not deemed proper that they mingle and Bethia believes she has sinned gravely when she develops a friendship with Cheeshahteaumauk, nicknamed Chuppi ‘the one who stands separate’ the young son of a Chieftain whom she names Caleb. He calls her ‘Storm Eyes’.

“to the extent that my spirit was roiled, so his seemed calm.”

Bethia and Caleb are like yin and yang, they contrast and yet complement each other, light within dark, dark within light, they attract and recoil from each other, moving through life with their separate belief systems, alien and yet understanding, their spirits connected in ways the intellect struggles to comprehend. But while he is able to suspend his beliefs to better understand the ways of the settler’s, something deemed necessary for their survival, she cannot do the same, she observes and feels something, but her fear of it convinces her it must be devil’s work. Caleb is elusive, we perceive him rather than know him, which makes him mysterious, left to the imagination to fill in the gaps. He appears not to have been corrupted and is “all seeing”, at least I imagine him as such.

The book is split into three periods in Bethia’s life, moments when she picked up the pen and looking back recorded certain events in her life, the first period when she was an adolescent on the island records her transformation from carefree girl within a stable family environment to young adult when a change in family fortune requires her to be indentured as a housemaid in a Cambridge school so her brother can continue his education.

I enjoyed this part the most, it touched both her joy and terror of discovering the new, her close relationship with nature, Caleb and the island and her desire to know more while fighting her puritan instinct to punish herself for those thoughts and stifle their continual unwelcome presence. It is the beginning of her repressed crush on the young Chieftan’s son, who appears comfortable in himself with his knowledge and harbours none of her fears of taking that knowledge to the next level.

Thus we find ourselves in the second part, in Cambridge where Bethia’s brother Makepeace and the two boys Caleb and Joel spend a preparatory year before sitting the exam that will allow them entry into Harvard. It was something of a shock in reading to suddenly be thrown into Cambridge, just as it must have been for the protagonist herself, I wasn’t ready to leave the island and wanted to dwell more on the years that were not recounted in the text, but alas, it was not I steering this ship and so reluctantly I let go of that disappointment to await Bethia’s fate. Bethia desires intellectual knowledge or at least to be in the proximity of it, so despite her lot, she is content to be within an educational institution and this attraction forms the basis of future decisions she will make.

An enjoyable read, although the cut off between the three sections always left me wondering and craving a little more for what happened next, never quite reaching fulfillment. The introduction of the characters of Caleb and Joel left this reader wanting more and I was disappointed that we don’t learn more of their experience, which I understand would have required great steps in the imagination, as little details of their time at Harvard are actually known or recorded. But ever thankful to have been enlightened on the achievements of these two young men and their place in the story of America and another great read from Geraldine Brooks.

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17 thoughts on “Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

  1. People of the Book is one of my favourite reads, and I’ve looked forward to this one for months. An older historical novel, written 52 years or so ago now you might enjoy if you can find a copy is The Winthrop Woman.

    I’m fascinated with this point in history, as my great grandmother 8 generations removed was hung as a witch in the Salem Witch Trials (five other ancestors were charged, this out of the 150 total number charged.)

    Good review, as always… and I can’t wait to read the book, sigh.

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    • I haven’t read ‘People of the Book’ yet and thanks for mentioning ‘The Winthrop Woman’, it sounds intriguing, will have a search. Have you written about your ancestor or is she still simmering?

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  2. This sounds wonderful, and I’ve come across a few Brooks reviews lately. It must be the universe saying it’s time to read one of her books. I didn’t realize she’d written a story with Native Americans at the center…

    Thanks for the review.

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    • I read a hardback version and also hadn’t realised she had a new book out until it was passed on to me. Not quite at the centre sadly, more on the periphery, but the presence of Caleb and Joel definitely enticing and left me interested in knowing more which Brooks does expand on in the foreword and afterword.

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  3. I love Geraldine Brooks for her wonderful prose, characterizations, and deep understanding of the historical period in which she is writing. If she has a flaw, I think that plot-wise, the story seems to run out of steam toward the end and lapses into more synopsis than actual plot. In the two books of hers that I’ve read, I was slightly disappointed at the end – but still loved the book.

    In Caleb’s Crossing, I think she did a better job of the ending. Although I agree with you, I, too, was disappointed by the second and third parts of the book, too, I think that had to do with how totally involved I was in the characters and what I wanted for them. In some ways, it’s praise that that characters hooked me so much in the first place.

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    • Thanks Jan, would love to be discussing this on ‘The Rock’, c’est la vie – yes, I think the first part really worked and drew me into expecting something different than what followed, how she captured the voice of the period was phenomenal, I just wish she had continued to channel it a little longer, no mean feat I am sure and certainly appreciate it for what it was.

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  4. ‘People of the Book’ was such an inventive novel in its melding of history and fiction that it turned me into an instant fan of Geraldine Brooks. The setting and period she focuses on in ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ seem to make for another rich read. And, yes, the woodblock print is wonderful.

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  5. I usually love Geraldine Brooks, but I really never got comfortable with the way she used language in the book. It just didn’t ring true to me. Maybe because I’m English, I don’t know. Most of my friends liked it, so probably I’m the one who’s wrong…

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  6. Pingback: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks | Word by Word

  7. Pingback: Freshly Seen at Jill’s Scene is back | Jill's Scene

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