Caleb's Crossing: Book summary and reviews of Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing

A Novel

By Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing
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  • Published in USA  May 2011,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

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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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Brooks has an uncanny ability to reconstruct each moment of the history she so thoroughly researched in stunningly lyrical prose, and her characters are to be cherished." - BookList

"Brooks brings the 1660s to life with evocative period detail, intriguing characters, and a compelling story... With Harvard expected to graduate a second Martha's Vineyard Wampanoag Indian this year, almost three and a half centuries after Caleb, the novel's publication is particularly timely." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Brooks offers a lyric and elevated narrative that effectively replicates the language of the era; she takes on the obvious issues of white arrogance, cultural difference, and the debased role of women without settling into jeremiad. The result is sweet and aching. Highly recommended." - Library Journal

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by vam
Not really about Caleb
I am going to be generous and give the book 2.5 stars. Halfway between it was ok and I liked it.

Are we there yet? I was really disappointed in this book. I had heard such good reports and several people told me in advance that I would love it – but I am finally done and not a minute too soon.

Why was I disappointed? Let me count the ways:

I expected a book that let me experience the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. What I got, was a story that is primarily about a young colonial girl (Bethia) and her life on the island we call Martha’s Vineyard and her experiences as the daughter of a missionary to the Indians. Every once and while, Caleb (the Harvard graduate) appears in the story but we only see him through Bethia’s eyes. This made me feel at time like the victim of false advertising. Another reviewer said maybe the author did not feel free to explore further into Caleb because he was an actual person and, even though this is a fictional novel, trying to add/detract from what is known about him would almost be akin fraud.

The language the author used to make Bethia’s journal sound very authentic may have accomplished that task, but it cut into my enjoyment of the plot of the novel. The writing style sometime exhausted me. I just wanted to relax in my comfy chair and read for pleasure and not have to think about what I was reading – but the author deprived me of that privilege. I was happy when I finished this book – there are too many good books out there waiting for me.

Frequently, I felt as though the author was testing my patience when she jumped ahead of herself and then later came back and explained how she got there. I must admit I was forewarned of this tendency by how the book starts – I am a rather disciplined person I guess and I would have preferred if the book had started at the beginning of the story instead of jumping into something that really took place much later.

I think the author intended for us to identify with and admire Bethia. Instead, I could never feel as though I actually knew her as a person. I sympathized with desire to break though the gender gap and I was disturbed by how unfairly she was treated, but that was it. I think if the author had forgotten about trying to weave Caleb into the story and concentrated on Bethia’s life, I might have had more positive thoughts about the whole book. There was a story to be told about Bethia, but the to me the author kept dropping a stitch – leaving a whole in the story.

I do admire the work obviously done by the author to resurrect so much information about the relationships between the settlers and the Indian tribes and about the beginnings of Harvard. Too bad she had the limitations of the small bits of knowledge available about Caleb. Once again, I feel as though his inclusion in the novel was the problem.

And now that I have reached the end of the story (finally!) – I am left wondering where the book was supposed to take me. So in answer to my question – Are we there yet? – the answer would have to be that to get from here to there you have to have a destination in mind.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Dorothy T.
Great read
On many levels, this novel is so satisfying: the characters are compelling, the writing provides suspense, and the descriptions of the settings put the reader into the time and place. This is the first novel by Geraldine Brooks that I have read; I am eager to read her earlier work.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cloggie Downunder
a wonderful read
Caleb’s Crossing is the fourth novel by Geraldine Brooks. As with her other novels, fiction is built on fact. In this case the fact is the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the young son of a Wampanoag chieftain, who, in 1665, was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. The story is narrated by Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Calvinist minister living on the island of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard), and begins when twelve-year-old Bethia meets Caleb whilst she is out gathering clams. Bethia’s diary paints a vivid picture of life in an English Puritan settlement in the 17th century, and the effects on both cultures of interaction with the Native population. As events unfold, we watch Bethia, in her innocence and ignorance, using faulty logic, come to incorrect conclusions and thus suffers unwarranted guilt. As Bethia grows and matures, so does her narrative voice. The struggle between the English ministers and the Native medicine men for the acceptance of their beliefs amongst the native population is well portrayed. Caleb’s stubborn uncle, medicine man Tequamuk, seems remarkably prescient on the subject of the future of Native Americans.
Each time I pick up a book, fiction or non-fiction, by Geraldine Brooks, I look at the description on the jacket and wonder if I am going to like this one. By now, I should have learned that, no matter the subject matter, this author does not disappoint her readers. The depth of her research stands out. Her characters are always well developed, the dialogue is authentic, and she manages to convey the mood and atmosphere perfectly. Brooks manages to squeeze a wealth of facts into an easily-digestible package. I laughed and cried. I especially loved Caleb’s explanation and opinions on the native and English gods. I enjoyed this novel more than I expected to. It was engrossing and enlightening. The afterword was especially interesting. Once again, Brooks gives us a wonderful read.

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Author Information

Geraldine Brooks Author Biography

Photo: Randi Baird

Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, and attended Bethlehem College Ashfield and the University of Sydney. She worked as a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a feature writer with a special interest in environmental issues.

In 1982 she won the Greg Shackleton Australian News Correspondents scholarship to the journalism master’s program at Columbia University in New York City. Later she worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans.

She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March (2005), and her novel Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001) is an international bestseller. Her ...

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  • March jacket
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