Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts in the 1640's was primitive, rugged, yet beautiful place. Inhabited by the Wampanoag Indian tribes, the island was rich with vegetation and wildlife, the ocean rich with fish and crab. This is the place chosen by a ragtag group of Puritan English pioneers to establish a settlement in order to escape the cruel treatment of the rigid, Calvinistic British society on the mainland.
The voice of Caleb's Crossing is that of young Bethia Mayfield, whose father was Great Harbor's minister. Bethia is a very bright, curious girl, longing for the education that is denied her because of her sex. So she eavesdrops on her dull brother's Latin, Greek and Hebrew lessons, soaking up the new languages like a sponge. Her free spirit presses her to explore the beautiful island that is her home, much against the strict dictates of a Calvinistic upbringing that demands obedience and domestic subservience from their womenfolk. Through her wanderings, Bethia meets Caleb, an Indian boy her age, and the son of the Chieftan. Bethia teaches Caleb to speak and read her language. He in turn teaches her how to live off the land, gathering berries and herbs, and spear fish from the ocean's shore. She soon becomes fluent in his language. They become the best of friends.
Minister Mayfield takes it upon himself the job of educating and converting the local Indians, thus incurring the wrath of the Shaman, Caleb's uncle. He lands the big prize by taking Caleb into his home to tutor him in the classic languages in preparation for his formal education at Harvard University. The opposing forces of the Calvinist minister and the Wampanoag shaman collide as tragedy and heartbreak follow celebrations and successes.
Caleb's Crossing is Geraldine Brooks at her best, weaving an beautiful, vivid story from a tiny shred of historical fact. Brooks actually recently moved to Martha's Vineyard where she came across a map made by the Wampanoag people that marked the birthplace of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Not much is known about Caleb's short but remarkable life. But that is just the hook that Brooks needed to immerse herself in the history of this Indian tribe and Martha's Vineyard, to create another evocative and absorbing historical novel.