Brooks once again takes a kernel of historical fact and uses it to unfold a compelling narrative. The kernel in this case is that in 1665 Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. The rest of the book, including Caleb’s friendship with Bethia, the novel’s narrator, flowers from the author’s story-tellying prowess. Caleb and Bethia forge their secret friendship prior to his joining her family’s household to receive educational and religious instruction from her minister father in the settlement of Great Harbor, known today as Martha’s Vineyard. Circumstances then allow her to accompany Caleb and her brother Makepeace to Cambridge where she is able to remain as a sisterly companion and confidant to the young Native American youth trying to make his way in a culture foreign to his upbringing.
It is through their interactions, discussions, and mostly Bethia’s innermost musings that Brooks examines the clash of culture, thought, and religious belief ever-present in the novel. Outwardly, Bethia perserveres in her Puritan rearing while inwardly questioning if the white settler’s ways are in fact superior in every aspect. Similarly, she also struggles within the confines of strict societal norms for women regarding education and the ability to make her own personal choices.
Brooks provides all the right elements for an engaging, wonderful reading experience. The setting is described in rich, illustrious detail, while a well paced plot provides pertinent revelations when and where they are best suited. In addition, she populates the novel with complex, multi-dimensional people who are believable, imperfect and thus fully humanized making them accessible for the reader to connect to. Her dedication to historical research shines through in her attention to detail, both in language and prevailing thoughts and beliefs of the period in question.
As with her other novels, one should not expect a mushy, feel-good story. There is plenty of pain, sorrow, and loss interspersed with moments of love, peace, and contentment. It is the embodiment of life’s journey in all of its trappings. Compelling and creative, Caleb’s Crossing is a journey worth taking.