Imagining a life
It is hard to imagine that there was a time when Harvard was a very small college, and when native Americans outnumbered European immigrants in the Eastern part of the United States. Geraldine Brooks puts the reader into that time period very effectively with her novel Caleb's Crossing, set in Boston and on Martha's Vineyard in the 17th century.
Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winning author is an expert at creatively expanding on historical facts to create her novels. With Caleb's Crossing she had to work with very few historical details about the first Indian who graduated from Harvard. Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk was part of the Wampanoag tribe on what is now Martha's Vineyard and there is very little known about him. We do know that Caleb had a short life and the only document to be found are a letter in Latin which is reproduced in the endpapers of the book.
Although the title indicates that this is Caleb's story, it is told from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield. Bethia is a precocious and bright young woman who forges a secret friendship with Caleb as they learn each other's languages. After Caleb comes to the attention of Bethia's father, a Calvinist minister, he is partially converted to the ways of the white people, becoming a Christian and getting educated, eventually being sent to Harvard. Caleb's and Bethia's paths continue to cross. Bethia listens in as her father tutors Caleb and her much less intelligent brother Makepeace. And after her father dies, Bethia ends up in Boston where she once again crosses paths with Caleb.
There are many interesting threads here: the treatment and lack of education for women, the impact of European civilizaton on Native American tribes, and the early development of university education in this country. This well written historical novel will appeal to fans of historical and literary fiction.