My book challenge for 2013 is to read 125 books this year. So far I have finished the first book, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. Caleb’s Crossing is a book I read for a book group discussion this Saturday and I’m really looking forward to it. This is a book of historical fiction, a genre I very much like.
The book is narrated by a girl who lives on what will become known as the island of Martha’s Vineyard. She is the daughter of a minister, the granddaughter of the man who purchased land on the island, which they called Great Harbour, to escape the rigid laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1600s. Bethia has a love for learning and surreptitiously learns Latin and Greek and Hebrew, as well as the language of the Indians of the island by listening in on her brother’s lessons with her father.
One day she meets a young Wampanoag boy, whom she calls Caleb. He calls her Storm Eyes. They develop a brother-sister relationship that will last throughout Caleb’s lifetime. Caleb is the son of a chief, a sonquem, and the nephew of a pawaaw, a medicine man, and is training to be like his uncle. Bethia’s father is attempting to convert the Indians of the island to Christianity and there is a small Christian Indian settlement on the island. Smallpox strikes the Indian settlements on the island and kills Caleb’s father. Caleb eventually comes to the Christian settlement and to Bethia’s father to learn English learning with her brother and another Indian boy. As their learning progresses, arrangements are made for them to board with a master near Harvard College to prepare them to matriculate at Harvard College, which has received money to educate Indian youth from benefactors in England. Before they leave, however, the minister is lost at sea in a storm, leaving Bethia and her brother orphans.
Bethia accompanies her brother and the Indian boys to the master’s home as an indentured servant to help pay for her brother’s tuition. All the boys learn quickly at the master’s home except her brother, Makepeace. He decides to leave the school and return to the island and buy off Bethia’s indenture and marry her to a young man on the island. Bethia is upset by this, but the young man buys her indenture himself and frees her. She takes a job at hall at the college so that she can be near to lectures and learning, and also to the Indian boys as they enter Harvard College. She also has fallen in love with the master’s son, a tutor at the college who loves her for her quick and learned mind.
Caleb was a real historical character. He came from Martha’s Vineyard. He really attended the Indian College at Harvard College. One of his writings, a third year Latin paper, remains. He died prematurely of consumption about a year after receiving his degree.
The story of Caleb and Bethia is beautifully told in Caleb’s Crossing. The descriptions of Martha’s Vineyard are lovely and make you realize why Bethia so loves the island. Her passion for learning nearly breaks your heart. Her love for Caleb is pure and true. This is a lovely and touching book that makes you realize that we have certainly come a long way from the days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and it’s a good thing we have, where now women and minorities can learn in peace and are not oppressed.