Caleb’s Crossing: A Glimpse of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s

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Well this week has proven to be sufficiently busy for me. But in all the craziness I did manage to find the time to finish my book, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. I bought Caleb’s Crossing on Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago, and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since.

I came across it late last Friday night, the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, when I was looking for a good book to curl up with in the cold. (It seemed more like Columbus Day weekend with all the rain and the cold than the beginning of summer, but the weather this week has made up for it).

Caleb’s Crossing proved to be an excellent curl-up-by-the fire book. Set on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s, Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of a young girl Puritan girl named Berthia Mayfield, who comes across a young Wampanoag Native American boy. She and this boy, who she later calls Caleb, strike up a strong friendship that lasts throughout the book. Caleb, who is inducted into Puritan society, ends up being the first  Native American to graduate from Harvard. The novel is based on a true story, and tracks Berthia and Caleb’s journey through the years.

This is not what I would call an action packed book, but it is well written, and tells a good story. From the beginning of the novel, Berthia makes the point that she is not the average well mannered Puritan woman that her mother is, and that is the ideal for the society she grows up in. At a young age Berthia began listening in on her older brother’s school lessons that she was not privy to herself. It is clear that she has more interest in education and schooling than her brother does, and furthering her knowledge proves to be a driving force behind her decisions throughout the book.

I particularly enjoyed this novel for its descriptions of Martha’s Vineyard, which is a place I know well. Even in pre-Revolutionary America Martha’s Vineyard acted as a get away from mainland life. Berthia’s grandfather moved there from The Massachusetts Bay Colony when he had a disagreement about the ways of life with the other members in the colony. Even in the strict Puritan days, the Vineyard has a more relaxed feel to it than the lifestyle of the mainland peoples. This contrast is made abundantly clear when Berthia travels to the Boston later in her life, and describes the strict practices she sees there. Her own family has a fairly rigid way of life, but Berthia is allowed more freedom because of their island lifestyle than she would be as a young woman growing up elsewhere in the colonies at this time.

Berthia clearly loves Martha’s Vineyard has a close connection to the island which becomes stronger when she is introduced to Caleb and the Native American ways of life. This introduction also has an interesting effect on her faith, which as a Puritan is a huge part of her life. At a young age she grapples with the contrast between her strict Protestant upbringing, and the freer, more nature-based practices of the Wampanoag Native Americans. The result, although she is constantly grappling with it, turns out to be a more fleshed out picture of God’s plan that she was seeing otherwise, especially in terms of the beauty of nature on the island.

As I said before, Caleb’s Crossing is not a fast paced book, but Brooks does weave suspense throughout her story. Berthia proves to be a strong character, and I enjoyed seeing how she carved a life for herself in an unconventional manner for a Puritan woman of her time. Throughout her life she chooses positions for herself that allow her to further her learning and happiness, which were not aspects of life women tended to focus on in this time period.

I thought that some of the more minor characters, such as Berthia’s mother and grandfather could have been developed more fully throughout the book, but as a whole I enjoyed reading Caleb’s Crossing. I enjoyed seeing Martha’s Vineyard, Boston, and Harvard through a different lens. As a new school in Cambridge, Harvard at this time had about 30 students who studied with private tutors in two buildings – very different than college today.

Geraldiine Brooks does a good job of transporting her reader into a world of the past of Native Americans, Puritanism and education. The contrast between English and Native American life is well depicted, and the complexities of the relationship between these two groups of people, which defined so much of American history, is looked at from multiple angles. Brooks does not stereotype this relationship, and encompasses many different views in her story.

I tend not to gravitate toward Pre-Revolutionary fiction, because I have studied that era so much in school, and was never as interested in it as I was other periods of time in American History. But, despite all this, I really enjoyed Brooks’ story, and liked seeing a world that I know so well as new and unfamiliar. All in all it was an enjoyable Memorial Day Weekend read.

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4 thoughts on “Caleb’s Crossing: A Glimpse of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s

  1. I have had this book on my to-read list for a long time. I loved her other books. Maybe I’ll bump this one up in line.

  2. Pingback: Captured by Indians – Preserved by God | I'm All Booked

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  4. Pingback: Happy Friday | goodbookscents

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