In 1665, Caleb Cheeshah-teaumuck was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Here, Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks imagines that Caleb was befriended by Bethia Mayfield, whose minister father wants to convert the neighboring Wampanoag and makes educating Caleb one of his goals. Bethia, herself desperate for book learning, ends up as an indentured servant in Cambridge, watching Caleb bridge two cultures.
Despite the title, Caleb's Crossing is just as much, if not more so, about Bethia and her struggles in the male-dominated Puritan world that subjects her to uneducated, blind obedience to the men in her life as about Caleb's struggles to overcome ethnocentricity and figure out which path will help his people more, continuing on in his traditional lifestyle and religion or leaving these to attain a white man's higher education, even if it costs him his health and family. Though Brooks appears to depart from the storyline set out by the title by focusing more on Bethia's life than Caleb's, the two lives remain connected to each other and the author effectively carries out the historical points she is trying to make about cultural exchanges and gender relations in colonial America. While the plot moves slowly, Brooks still draws readers into the characters' lives; at some points I even wished she had written more and delved further into certain periods of their lives. Brooks seamlessly weaves historical detail into the novel, everything from traditional Wompanoag lifeways and religion to the words and phrases of the time to mentions of such personages as Anne Bradstreet, Anne Hutchinson, and John Eliot. She does a great job of capturing the feel of the time period - one which, occurring between the landing at Plymouth and the Salem Witch Trials, is often neglected in historical fiction of colonial America. If I gave ratings, this book would be 4 1/2 out of 5 - near perfect. Brooks' subject and writing leave very little to complain about.
My copy of Caleb's Crossing was received from Penguin, who published it on May 3, 2011. Don't forget to check out my giveaway of two copies of the novel, which ends 5/18/11.