Native American

The year was 1660, the place an island now called Martha’s Vineyard. The “college at Newtowne,” a theological seminary across the bay much later named Harvard University, was 24 years old and sported a student body of 33 young men. The following year a brilliant young Native American, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, matriculated as a student there. This brilliant historical novel tells the tale of Caleb’s “crossing” from his life as a chieftain’s son in the untamed expanse of what was then simply called “the island,” to the ranks of the educated elite in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Harvard’s first Indian graduate. As Geraldine Brooks writes, “He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs.”

Caleb’s story is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the young daughter of the preacher on the island and granddaughter of the breakaway colony’s founder. At the age of 12, she and Caleb meet on one of her rebellious wanderings across the island. They become fast friends over time.

Bethia is entirely a construct of Geraldine Brooks’ fertile imagination, and she contrives to put the young woman in position to observe Caleb’s transformation almost constantly. However, virtually all the other characters in this novel are based on historical figures, some of them loosely (as is the case of Bethia’s family), some of them, including Caleb himself, hewing accurately to the known facts.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2011) 354 pages ★★★★★

Caleb’s Crossing is history told as it should always be: vivid, engrossing, and emotionally honest. In relating Caleb’s story, Brooks paints an indelible picture of the early decades of colonial life in Eastern Massachusetts. She casts a bright light on the troubled, and eventually tragic, relationship between the colonists and the Indians, and explores an aspect of that history much less commonly discussed: the rebellion of so many colonists against the rigid, narrow-minded regime of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

This is the fourth of Geraldine Brooks’ extraordinary historical novels. Unlike so many other writers in that genre, she has no favorite period, no fixation on a narrow subject, but ranges through the centuries and across the globe to find the most arresting topics to tell. And arresting they are! Every one of her earlier novels — Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2002), March (2006), and People of the Book (2008) — is both an adventure and a revelation to read. Brooks, an Australian-born former foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal,  has a preternatural ability to relocate herself to an earlier time and an unknown place.

For further reading

All of the author’s books can be found at The outstanding historical fiction of Geraldine Brooks.

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