Take a surprising true story – the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in the 17th century. Season it with a historically appropriate context. And, mix in a story told through the eyes of a growing young daughter of a minister and you arrive at “Caleb’s Crossing” by Gretchen Brooks, who is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her 2006 book “March.”
Bethia Mayfield is the girl growing up in the settlement of Great Harbor on what is now called Martha’s Vineyard. Her father has an earnest effort to convert and educate members of the Wampanoag tribe on the island. While Bethia is not allowed advanced schooling given her gender, she listens to her father’s lessons to her older brother, Makepeace. Since her brother is not the best of students, unlike his younger sister, she gets the benefit of hearing the lessons repeated.
As she lost her twin brother in a terrible accident, she wanders the coast, woods and meadows. She befriends a a Wampanoag boy about her age. She eventually gives him an English name of Caleb. He is as curious to learn as she is and he teaches her about where good berries can be found and how to fish. He also teaches her his language and vice-versa. Yet, other than taking her berries home, she must keep her learnings to herself.
I will stop there as not to reveal too much plot. If you are a woman, this book will exasperate you at times. You will pull for Bethia throughout and wince when she does headstrong things that her mother cautioned her about. She will acknowledge that she may have said too much on occasion in the book.
While Bethia and her story is fiction, there are many parts of the story that are true. Brooks points these out at the end of the book, as she does not want her book to replace history. Yet, so much is unknown about Caleb and another Native American Harvard student, that the story is a good teaching aid.
“Caleb’s Crossing” is a good book. It is not a can’t-put-down-read, at least to me, but it is entertaining. Men will find it of interest, but women will likely be more invested with how it portrays the subservient nature of girls and women in the mid-to-late 17th century and how Bethia overcomes obstacles.