Caleb's Crossing: I Am Glad I Am Not a Pilgrim

I have no idea what a “bever” is, but settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony apparently enjoyed quite a few of them. They also took religion really seriously, dealt with horrible tragedies as part of everyday life and spent a lot of time learning dead languages. Or at least the men spent a lot of time on the dead languages – the women were too busy cooking and cleaning and growing corn. I do not think I would have liked being a Pilgrim, but Geraldine Brooks certainly paints a vivid picture of what life on Martha’s Vineyard would have been like had I been born there in the 1660’s.

Caleb's Crossing is a fictionalized account of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck’s (say that 5 times fast) life from the time he is a boy until he becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. The story is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, minister’s daughter and wanna-be free spirit. She’s bright and capable and curious and incredibly likable. It’s easy to be sympathetic to her problems and understand her choices while at the same time being extremely grateful my life isn’t as hard or restricted as hers was (or would have been, had she been a real person and not a character in a book -- something I forgot after a few chapters, which should tell you just how realistically written she is).

Let me just say that as a genre, historical fiction ranks pretty high on my list of things I enjoy reading. I like to pretend I am learning actual history along with my entertainment, and especially enjoy details about everyday life – how the laundry was done or what people ate or what giving birth was like. Caleb’s Crossing contains enough minutia to be interesting but I definitely would have liked more. The author focused a lot on writing in Bethia’s own era-appropriate voice, which lead to an abundance of words like “bever” and “salvages” and “murtherers”. To be honest, I found it a little distracting and had a hard time jumping in and out of the world of the book – something that happens a lot when you’re grabbing a few minutes for reading between feedings or while you’re waiting for the water to boil for dinner. But when I had the time to focus, I got used to the language and it definitely made Bethia and the wide cast of supporting characters feel more real. I am also a sucker for books set in New England, especially when they use locations I’m familiar with, so that was two or three more checks in the “plus” column.

One last thing I found fascinating – Bethia mentions the original purpose in creating Harvard College instead of just letting youths be tutored at home was to give the boys a chance to focus fully on their studies and not be distracted by other pursuits. I wonder what she would think of college today.