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Harvard Yard once sported an Indian School and other early American realities

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks


Geraldine Brooks recently wrapped a four-day event in Iceland, where 10% of the population will someday publish a book.

Brooks is an author who both educates and illuminates: open "Caleb's Crossing" to experience the New World as American history books have yet to tell.

Brooks expands the concept of fully-fleshed research as Nicola Griffith did in "Hild". Landscapes are lush enough to inhale; language follows patterns of the time. Female protagonists stand pious yet strong, contained within constrained periods in which they seek fulfillment.

Such authors make reading history an animated pleasure.

In "Caleb's Crossing", Brooks invents the character of adolescent Bethia Mayfield, rebellious child of a Puritan minister, so that she might explore for us the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first and perhaps only Native American to graduate from Harvard during a period in the 1600s when pioneers and native inhabitants lived together in peace.

As many visits as I have made to Cambridge, even to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, I came to this novel unaware of its historic significance. I plucked it off the shelf with signature naivete', consuming over two thirds before considering Caleb as a possible figure from history.

References in the novel caused me to google poet Anne Bradstreet, who penned the lines, "If ever two were one, then surely we. If ever man were loved by wife, then thee."

I admired the author's exploration of native Wampanoag language and spiritual ritual; her knowledge of Harvard daily schedules and unethical distribution of student fees.

Yet, the novel unfolded as a coming-of-age, not as fiction set within the confines of an extraordinary event, intended to expand the character of an exceptional human being. I would have been moved had the piece been a mere imagining. Its foundation in reality transformed Caleb's accomplishment to an illumination.

Following on the heels of her Pulitzer for "March", one can only imagine the effect the Iceland Writers Retreat will have on this author's fertile psyche. Best consume "People of the Book", "Year of Wonders" and "Foreign Correspondence" before her next inspired novel captivates readers on all sides of the sea.

I recommend this novel to high school teachers tasked with Early American History or Contemporary Literature. Geraldine Brooks' accomplished text will expand the consciousness of students and teachers alike.

Note: Because the narrator speaks in patterns of the period, challenged students may have difficulty comprehending the storyline. This novel was written for adults, though it offers much for savvy high school students to contemplate.

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