In a class of his own

Geraldine Brooks's new novel reconstructs the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.

Geraldine Brooks cover 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Geraldine Brooks cover 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
By Geraldine Brooks
306 pages; $26.95
In 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wampanoag from the area now known as Martha’s Vineyard, became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Not much more is known about what must have been an intriguing life, albeit one cut tragically short; he died of consumption a year after graduation. All that remains in his own hand is a single letter, written in Latin to his English benefactors, in which he relates the myth of Orpheus – the man who crossed into the Underworld in an attempt to rescue his deceased wife Eurydice – to his own crossing between two very different worlds.
Cheeshahteaumauk’s unusual achievement forms the basis of Caleb’s Crossing, the new novel by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks – whose previous novels include the Pulitzer Prize-winning March, and 2008’s People of the Book – has, from the scant facts available about Cheeshahteaumauk’s life, constructed a historical fiction that contemplates the life of the early Puritan settlers in the US and their tense, troubled relationship with the Native American tribes in situ.
Cheeshahteaumauk’s life is observed from the vantage point of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of the minister to the Great Harbor island settlement. Her life is one touched by tragedy: The early death of her twin brother robs her of her only companion in the remote community. She possesses a keen and restless intellect, but this is destined to remain unfulfilled by the cultural and societal mores of the time. Her preordained role is as wife, mother, homemaker. Ambition is not for women: “Bethia, why do you strive so hard to quit the place in which God has set you?”
Preference, rather, falls to her less capable elder brother, Makepeace, who is being groomed – optimistically – for a place at Harvard and ultimately his father’s ministry. Mayfield understands that there are other paths to selfadvancement than ostentatious rebellion against the orthodoxy of the time: “Listening, not speaking, has been my way... my mother taught me the use of silence.” And she does, surreptitiously absorbing both the knowledge intended for her brother, and the Wampanaontoaonk language of the neighboring tribe from the lessons her father receives in order to advance his ministry.
Said ministry is the task of converting the Wampanoag to the Christian faith, a goal unsurprisingly hindered by their hostile resistance to conversion, as well as inevitable cultural barriers. Mayfield, however, is opportunely given the chance to form a more enduring relationship with a part of the tribe; while searching for shellfish on the shoreline for the family’s modest chowder kettle, she happens across Cheeshahteaumauk, “a youth of my own age... clad for hunting, wearing a kind of deerskin breechclout tied with the a belt fashioned of snake skins.” An unexpected friendship forms between the two; inspired by her father’s work and her own beliefs, she sees in him a chance to rescue a soul from Satan. Secretly she begins to teach him everything she knows, including how to read and speak in English.
Caleb’s Crossing is founded on the tensions between two cultures, both unyielding in the severity of their beliefs, but in many senses mirror images of each other. These frictions come into sharp focus when, unexpectedly, Cheeshahteaumauk is sent to live with Mayfield’s father. Cheeshahteaumauk possesses an uncommon intellect, it seems, and the hope is that he, too, may study at Harvard, to benefit from learning the ways of the settlers and in time to bridge the chasm between the Puritans and the “savages.” Meanwhile, Mayfield herself is torn between two worlds, of selfabasement and autonomy. Both Mayfield and Cheeshahteaumauk, lives intertwined by fate, desire to make crossings of a sort; but what awaits on the other side is an unknown.
There is much to recommend Caleb’s Crossing to those interested in appreciating the historical antecedents and the cultural milieu that the early migrants from England inhabited. Brooks is a fluent, lyrical writer, and in Mayfield she creates a character of genuine warmth and passion. Mayfield’s struggle for autonomy occupies the heart of the book; it would be an unusually unfeeling reader who did not feel empathy for her.
But therein, paradoxically, lies the problem with Caleb’s Crossing: Cheeshahteaumauk and the struggles that he and his people face against Puritan prejudice play a secondary role to Mayfield’s own passage. It must be said that Brooks observes acutely the racial double standards of the time; subtly, she invites comparison between competing strains of dogmatism and self-anointed superiority. But ultimately, the book is more concerned with Mayfield than with Cheeshahteaumauk’s fate.
This is no bad thing, of course, and from Mayfield’s travails emerges an engaging – if at times somewhat predictable – story. But it is Cheeshahteaumauk whose story Brooks sets out to reimagine – and by the end, unfortunately, he remains as much of an unknown as at the start.