Plenty of young men have grown up on Martha's Vineyard and gone to the illustrious universities in Cambridge, Mass. But this one wasn't a trust fund baby or a Kennedy. His name was Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, and in 1665, he became the first native American to graduate from Harvard. (The place was a trifle less rarified: students barely had enough to eat, the dorms were freezing, and flogging was a standard punishment.) In Caleb's Crossing (Viking, 306 pp.), Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks takes the few facts known about Cheeshahteaumauk (only one piece of his writing still exists) and wraps them around the narration of a fictional young preacher's daughter named Bethia Mayville.
As a girl, Bethia meets Caleb when she's out riding one day. He shows her where the best clamming and berrying are to be found, and she teaches him to read English and debate theology. (Lest you think you know where this is going, let me remind you that Brooks is the author, not Cassie Edwards.) Despite her strict Calvinist upbringing, Bethia's sensibilities are fairly modern: she's hungry for an education, outspoken (in a time when talking back to a male relative could get a nail driven through your tongue), and deplores her countrymen's treatment of the Wompanoag. Her father is determined to convert the tribe to Christianity and, after Caleb loses almost all his kinsmen to smallpox, he seems like a prime candidate. Her dad invites him to move in with the Mayvilles to prepare for university. Bethia, who learns Latin and Greek by listening in on her brother's and Caleb's lessons, also gets to Harvard, but as a servant, not a student.
Brooks is a superb writer and solid historian, but “Caleb's Crossing” isn't for fans of light historical fiction. Life on Martha's Vineyard wasn't for tourists back then – with harsh conditions and a high mortality rate and nary a fudge shop or bit of gingerbread trim in sight. Today, the island is only 90 minutes by ferry, but Brooks conveys the monumental courage it took for Caleb and his native American classmates to make that journey.
“Caleb's Crossing” also has impressive timing, coming out just weeks before the first Wompanoag since Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk is expected to receive her diploma from Harvard.