Starting Senior Year With Caleb’s Crossing

Well, I’m finally here, right at the beginning of my senior year in college. Just one more school year before I level up and out of academia to take on the real adult world. It’s all very exciting and a bit daunting at the same time.

Coincidentally, or maybe not and this is all my subconscious’ fault, I just made it through a book about a highly historical college graduate. Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks, is a take on the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, all the way back in 1665. I’d never heard of Caleb and his ordeal before, but the premise intrigued me right away, especially since I’d already known Geraldine Brooks was a pretty good historical fiction writer. Her take on Caleb’s life journey of crossing from his native world into the world of the English settlers, (whoa, I just explained the title there!) was definitely one that intrigued me and made me want to learn more. At the same time though, it did make me pretty nervous about graduating, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

The book is actually told through the perspective of a preachers’ daughter named Bethia, who lives on the same island as Caleb and the Wampanoag tribe he belongs to. She gets to know him and an interesting dialogue is created as the two get to know each other and their lives intertwine. A thirst for knowledge and book learning unites them, as does their apparent inability to get it in the culture they find themselves. Bethia is a young woman and her father fears educating her will spoil her for a decent marriage. Caleb wants to use the knowledge of the white man to aid and preserve his own culture, but faces persecution from both side by pursuing an formal education. It all makes for a pretty interesting analysis of what people can and will do when their desires conflate with the path or paths society says they  must travel.

The Wampanoag tribe getting along really well with some white settlers.

The Wampanoag tribe getting along really well with some white settlers.

In an ending that will surprise no one who had their young hearts broken when they learned how badly Disney lied to them about the life of Pocahontas, Caleb does not have a good time. The other couple of natives who attempted to study at Harvard, (mostly to be educated spiritually and become preachers and good Christian soldiers,) either left or died before they graduated. Caleb himself died of tuberculosis only a couple months after graduating. A Native American slowly getting the life force sapped out of them by being forced to live in the white man’s world; I told you it was a familiar story.

Narrator Bethia is lucky enough to marry a Harvard scholar, thereby securing a chance at some sort of learned life. She also watches most of her family and friends die horribly, along with her dream that Native Americans and Settlers might find a way to coexist peacefully, so yeah. No one gets a perfect happy ending in this book.

So, what does that mean for me and the “crossing” I’ll face from graduation into the real world? Am I going to die of tuberculosis or some other horrid disease five months after I graduate? I mean, college can be hard on a person’s health but I don’t think I’ll be that unlucky in the 21st century (or maybe I will, now that I’ve jinxed myself by mentioning it). Will my position as an educated white woman leave me safe and sheltered enough to live a prosperous life, but ultimately powerless to stop war, racial prejudice and cultural conflicts from destroying the lives of my friends and loved ones, and indeed possibly the world at large? Um, well… yeah. Not to sound over-wrought, but that one’s definitely more difficult to answer. My senior year anxiety did not need all these frightening historical parallels to latch onto.

All this is not to make it sound like I regret reading this book at all. I loved learning about the time period, what Harvard life way back when would have been like, and following the two compelling protaganists through their story. The best books always manage to make you feel like a little bit of your life is connected to the story too. Geraldine Brooks did it here with a period piece presenting a thousand little threads of historically resonant parallels and themes. I connect to them just a tad more as a soon to be college graduate, thirsty for knowledge and fully aware of an America that still has plenty of issues with race, culture and education.


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