Brooks' latest is beautifully steeped in history

  • Article by: ELLEN AKINS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2011 - 3:05 PM

Based on the life of a 17th-century American Indian, the first to graduate from Harvard.

The college that would become Harvard was founded in 1636, just six years after the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the 17th century its graduates numbered only 465, and one of this number was a Wopanaak (now known as Wampanoag) Indian named Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck. What little is known about this remarkable figure -- and there is very little -- forms the basis of Geraldine Brooks' new novel, "Caleb's Crossing," a wonderful work of the historical imagination.

Brooks, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "March" and the bestselling "People of the Book," has a true gift for immersing readers in a different time and place -- a knack for authenticity that only feels easy because it is so well done. Whether or not you know the language and culture of 17th-century America, you immediately believe that Brooks' narrator lives it.

This narrator is Bethia Mayhew, inserted into a fictional version of a family that did indeed live on the island that would one day become Martha's Vineyard. Bethia's father is a minister whose own father has moved to the island to escape the more stringent religious beliefs and practices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is his mission to bring Christianity to the "salvages."

There is a bit of girlish wish fulfillment in Brooks' portrayal of Bethia, who longs only for the education that is her dullard brother's birthright, and who manages to pick up Latin, Greek, Hebrew and, yes, Wopanaak, simply by listening in on lessons and conversations. But Bethia is so endearing, so willing to see herself as flawed by the lights of her time, that even in her anachronistic moments she is irresistible.

Bethia tells of meeting Caleb as a child (in fact, conferring that name upon him), then involving herself in his upbringing and education as his people are virtually destroyed by smallpox and her own family is devastated by various disasters. Their joined destinies take them to Cambridge, where she is indentured to the master of a school where Caleb and another of his kinsmen are given a place.

From there, Bethia makes her way, in matters of romance and learning, as Caleb, now like a brother to her, succeeds brilliantly as a scholar even as he suffers familial, social and cultural dislocations.

There may be a bit too much of knowing what tragedies are to come for American Indians, but Brooks' people are so convincing, their stories so involving, that it hardly matters. It is the author's triumph that their singular lives are infused with all the sorrow and joy, all the wisdom, of life, no matter its historical context.

  • Ellen Akins is a fiction writer in Cornucopia, Wis.
  • CALEB'S CROSSING

    By: Geraldine Brooks.

    Publisher: Viking, 306 pages, $26.95.

    Review: Brooks' new novel is a wonderful work of the historical imagination. Her characters live believable lives infused with sorrow, joy and wisdom.

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