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.