Another powerful piece of historical fiction from Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing is the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665. The narrator is Bethia Mayfield, resident of Great Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard, who has some basis in the original settlers of the island, the Mayhews. But, as with her novel March, much of the story is imaginative as Brooks describes the friendship of Bethia and Caleb.
While that relationship is fictional, Brooks uses her significant skills to depict Colonial America with its focus on sinners in the hands of an angry God. Bethia’s natural curiosity and desire to live a full life leads her to blame herself for any number of ills that beset her family and friends. Yet, she revels in the natural wonders of the island and the descriptions of the natural world bring that island to life.
The story has one tragedy after another, most of which are historically accurate. Caleb dies just after his graduation while the other Native American student is killed in a ship wreck prior to his own graduation. Death is very much a character in this novel. Yet, despite all, there is an uplifting message.