Saturday, September 15, 2012

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's CrossingCaleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Geraldine Brooks has written another wonderful historical novel: Caleb's Crossing, the story of an early seventeenth century colony in Massachusetts on the island that is now Martha's Vineyard. The book's focus is on the relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans who were living on the island when the European settlers arrived. Both groups have strong religious beliefs which dictate how they feel about each other in complex ways that differ from person to person.

Caleb's Crossing is told through Bethia Mayfield, the granddaughter of the colony's founder and the daughter of the minister who is doing the most to convert the native population while treating them with respect. Caleb, the title character, is brought into the story when Bethia is twelve years old. She encounters a young boy who is a member of the Wampanoag people while she is gathering clams. She has a limited knowledge of the Wampanoag language, so they are able to communicate. They become close friends, teaching each other the customs of their people and how to speak their languages well. They decide to give each other names; Bethia becomes Storm Eyes and Cheeshahteaumauk becomes Caleb.

Brooks treats the spiritual beliefs of both the English settlers and the Native Americans with respect. Caleb and some of the other Native Americans see power in the god of the English because of their ability to heal and their resistance to the diseases spreading through the area. Caleb also recognizes the need to understand the Europeans because of their great numbers. At one point he throws a handful of sand into the air and says the following: “You are like these. Each a trifling speck. A hundred, many hundreds-what matter? Cast them into the air. You cannot even find them when they land upon the ground. But there are more grains than you can count. There is no end to them. You will pour across this land, and we will be smothered.” Caleb sees that the native people must “cross over” or perish.

Another aspect of this book I thought was handled well was her portrayal of the racial and gender prejudices of the time. Some of the colonists were rigid in their structured views of the roles people are born to, but others could understand that both Native Americans and women can have the desire and the ability to learn. Caleb was based on a real man who was an early graduate of the college that would become Harvard.

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