63 pages 2 hours read

Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


Caleb’s Crossing (2011) is a historical fiction novel based on the real life figure of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University in 1665. Born into the Wampanoag tribe on an island near Cape Cod, the historical Cheeshahteaumuck converted to Christianity and attended a preparatory school before enrolling in Harvard.

In her novel, Pulitzer Prize winning author Geraldine Brooks tells a fictionalized version of Caleb’s story in the form of a bildungsroman (or a coming of age narrative) told through the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, a minister’s daughter in a series of informal journal entries. Bethia’s perspective adds to this story by comparing multiple excluded groups in 17th century New England, including women, Native Americans, and some sects of Puritans.

This guide uses the 2012 Penguin Publishing edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

Bethia is the daughter of two English settlers in what is now Martha’s Vineyard. They have come from England along with other Puritans to escape religious persecution. Bethia, somewhat disobedient of the rigidly constrained gender roles of her settlement, roams alone in the nearby reaches of the island. There she encounters Cheeshahteaumuck. They exchange knowledge, and even give one another names: she calls him Caleb, one of the followers of Moses; and he calls her Storm Eyes, for the light in her eyes.

Caleb eventually converts to Christianity due to his father’s wishes and actually comes to live in Bethia’s home to study under her father alongside Bethia’s brother, Makepeace, and another Native student, Joel. Bethia, meanwhile, is denied a formal education and assigned laborious domestic duties. Unfortunately, Bethia’s father dies during a sea voyage, leaving his children without sufficient resources. Bethia becomes indentured to Makepeace’s new tutor in Cambridge and her only consolation is that Caleb and Joel attend the same school.

Though Caleb and Joel thrive at the school and then at Harvard, both die around the time of graduation. Makepeace, a lackluster scholar, finds meaning in life. Bethia marries a scholar, Samuel Corlett, and ultimately lives a satisfactory domestic life in the proximity of America’s center of learning.