And here I was thinking I wouldn’t like historical fiction!
Caleb’s Crossing is set in 1660 and for me it doesn’t get much more historical than that. I like early 20th century history but this was a step outside my comfort zone – and it has been one of my favourite reads so far this year.
Geraldine Brooks has set her fictional story around the true facts of the first Native American, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, to graduate from Harvard University (in 1665). Caleb, as he came to be known, was from the Wampanoag Tribe of Martha’s Vineyard and was taught by a Puritan Minister on their island before crossing over to the mainland and eventually graduating. Of course the crossing of Caleb involves so much more than a physical journey.
I have read one other of Geraldine Brooks’ novels, People of the Book. Both stories are excellently researched although there was a double narrative and flicking back and forth between the past and present in People of the Book which I didn’t like so much. I’m pleased Geraldine Brooks chose to use one narrator for her latest book, and suprisingly perhaps from the title, that narrator is not Caleb.
Instead we hear the story from the voice of Bethia Mayfield, 12 years old at the beginning, who makes a new friend one day while out riding – a ‘salvage’ boy who becomes known as Caleb.
I love that passage.
Bethia is a a curious and bright girl who wants to explore and be educated along with her brother. But she is bound by the constraints of her time and has to employ ingenious ways of being involved. Although an entirely fictional character, she is like a pioneer for women, graciously accepting what has to be whilest pushing the boundaries at every opportunity! A new literary heroine for me.
Geraldine Brooks has written a beautiful story that gently introduces the reader to the controversial issues of religion and spirituality and the completely different values and lifestyles of the Christian missionaries and the native American people. Through Bethia, she presents a non judgmental and open minded way of looking at differences and accepting that there may be more than one right way. It is also a beautifully wrapped history lesson, a step back into the 17th century with all the harshness and sadness that life could bring then – all against the backdrop of Caleb’s true story.
One of the questions that is subtly asked is ‘Was it a full success for Caleb? Were the sacrifices he made worth it?
It appears there is a limited amount known about Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck. To help the reader separate fact from fiction in her story, there is an afterword written by Geraldine Brooks. I appreciated this and coming away knowing which parts were true and which were simply wonderful story telling.
2011, 539 pages