Until last year, I had never read a book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. When I found out she wrote a historical fiction novel about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, I was more than happy to accept a copy of her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing. Not only am I a fan of Harvard, after visiting there a few years ago, but I love learning about Native American culture. Ever since I can remember, I have had a huge fetish for anything Native American. I don’t know if this is because my mom grew up out west, and would tell me stories about Indians that she saw while driving through reservations, or if it is because several of my closest friends growing up in Michigan are part Native American. All I know is that I love reading books like One Thousand White Woman and Dances With Wolves. In fact, my all-time favorite movie is Dances With Wolves. So, as you can imagine, even though I already have too many books in my in-basket, I knew I had to read Caleb’s Crossing.
I gobbled up Caleb’s Crossing in one sitting, despite having a raging headache and double vision, as my eyes “have issues.” Right there, that tells you the book WAS THAT GOOD. It is inspired by the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. Caleb was from the Wampanoag tribe of Noepe, who lived on Martha’s Vineyard. I had no idea that Native Americans were able to attend college that long ago. It’s just amazing to me that during a time when many people feared and even hated Native Americans, a select few were still allowed their basic right to education. Nothing warms my heart more than when an underdog gets ahead by getting an education.
The story is told by Bethia Mayfield, a sort of 1660′s version of Scout Finch. The Mayfields are English Puritans, and Bethia is the daughter of a Calvin minister, who came to Martha’s Vinyard to convert the neighboring Wampanoag. Bethis has a hard life, as you’d expect anyone living in American would have during 1660. Actually, her life is most tragic, but I’d like to keep that a secret from you. Just trust me, its tragic. Bethia is a bright girl, and even though her father stopped educating her at age 9, she managed to read, learn Latin, and even learn to speak in the Wampanoag tongue. By age 12, she meets Caleb, and they begin a long and secret friendship that lasts a lifetime. She teaches him to read, and he teaches her about the ways of Native Americans, which would be sinful if anyone, and especially her father, were to find out. Caleb comes to live with her family a few years later due to his own tragic situation, and her father takes him under his wing and teaches him, along with another Indian boy named Joel. Fate takes Bethia, her at times semi-evil brother Makepeace, Caleb and Joel to Cambridge, and to Harvard College.
Caleb’s Crossing is a mesmerizing tale of friendship, survival, loyalty, and love, propelled by two friends whose ability to thrive in times when it was hard enough just to survive. Their story is a marvel of the human spirit. I really enjoyed reading this book, and I hope you all will consider putting it on your book lists and read it soon. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction as much as I do will need to purchase it immediately. Brooks is a not only a captivating writer, but also a master researcher, and she gives me so much pleasure reading her fictionalized tales about the Native American man she has discovered.
Caleb Cheeshahteamauk is an extraordinary figure in Native American history. How did you first discover him? What was involved in learning more about his life?
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah are proud custodians of their history, and it was in materials prepared by the Tribe that I first learned of its illustrious young scholar. To find out more about him I talked with tribal members, read translations of early documents in the Wopanaak language, then delved into the archives of Harvard and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially the correspondence between colonial leaders and benefactors in England who donated substantial funds for the education and conversion to Christianity of Indians in the 17th century. There are also writings by members of the Mayhew family, who were prominent missionaries and magistrates on the island, and John Cotton, Jr., who came here as a missionary and kept a detailed journal.
There is little documentation on Caleb’s actual life. What parts of his life did you imagine? Do you feel you know him better after writing this book, or is he still a mystery?
The facts about Caleb are sadly scant. We know he was the son of a minor sachem from the part of the Vineyard now known as West Chop, and that he left the island to attend prep school, successfully completed the rigorous course of study at Harvard and was living with Thomas Danforth, a noted jurist and colonial leader, when disease claimed his life. Everything else about him in my novel is imagined. The real young man—what he thought and felt—remains an enigma.
Bethia Mayfield is truly a woman ahead of her time. If she were alive today, what would she be doing? What would her life be like with no restrictions?
There were more than a few 17th century women like Bethia, who thirsted for education and for a voice in a society that demanded their silence. You can find some of them being dragged to the meeting house to confess their “sins” or defending their unconventional views in court. If Bethia was alive today she would probably be president of Harvard or Brown, Princeton or UPenn.
The novel is told through Bethia’s point of view. What is the advantage to telling this story through her eyes? How would the book be different if Caleb were the narrator?
I wanted the novel to be about crossings between cultures. So as Caleb is drawn into the English world, I wanted to create an English character who would be equally drawn to and compelled by his world. I prefer to write with a female narrator when I can, and I wanted to explore issues of marginalization in gender as well as race.
Much of the book is set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is also your home. Did you already know about the island’s early history, or did you do additional research?
I was always intrigued by what brought English settlers to the island so early in the colonial period…they settled here in the 1640s. Living on an island is inconvenient enough even today; what prompted the Mayhews and their followers to put seven miles of treacherous ocean currents between them and the other English—to choose to live in a tiny settlement surrounded by some three thousand Wampanoags? The answer was unexpected and led me into a deeper exploration of island history.
You bring Harvard College to life in vivid, often unpleasant detail. What surprised you most about this prestigious university’s beginnings?
For one thing, I hadn’t been aware Harvard was founded so early. The English had barely landed before they started building a college. And the Indian College—a substantial building—went up not long after, signifying an attitude of mind that alas did not prevail for very long. It was fun to learn how very different early Harvard was from the well endowed institution of today. Life was hand to mouth, all conversation was in Latin, the boys (only boys) were often quite young when they matriculated. But the course of study was surprisingly broad and rigorous—a true exploration of liberal arts, languages, and literature that went far beyond my stereotype of what Puritans might have considered fit subjects for scholarship.
As with your previous books, you’ve managed to capture the voice of the period. You get the idiom, dialect, and cadence of the language of the day on paper. How did you do your research?
I find the best way to get a feel for language and period is to read first person accounts—journals, letters, court transcripts. Eventually you start to hear voices in your head: patterns of speech, a different manner of thinking. My son once said, Mom talks to ghosts. And in a way I do.
May 2011, Tiffany Smalley will follow in Caleb’s footsteps and become only the second Vineyard Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard. Do you know if this will be celebrated?
In May Tiffany Smalley will become the first Vineyard Wampanoag since Caleb to receive an undergrad degree from Harvard College. (Others have received advanced degrees from the university’s Kennedy school etc.) I’m not sure what Harvard has decided to do at this year’s commencement, but I am hoping they will use the occasion to honor Caleb’s fellow Wampanoag classmate, Joel Iacoomis, who completed the work for his degree but was murdered before he could attended the 1665 commencement ceremony.
Visit Amazon.com to purchase your paperback copy of Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks now.
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Disclosure: While I was not paid for this post, I was sent the same book, in exchange for my honest review.