London: The latest novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is a fascinating glimpse of domestic life on 17th-century Martha`s Vineyard as the author weaves a tale based on the life of the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard College.
‘Caleb`s Crossing’ was inspired by Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wopanaak Indian who graduated in 1665 and died a year later of consumption. From the few facts available about the man, Brooks skillfully imagines his life and how it intertwines with that of narrator Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a preacher, and her family.
This is historical fiction at its finest. Brooks assumes the voice of a time, while artfully blending the lyrical and concise: "He is coming on the Lord`s Day. Though my father has not seen fit to give me the news, I have the whole of it."
Brooks also brings to life a little-known time and place — Martha`s Vineyard in the 1600s — and the history behind the United States` oldest institute of higher learning.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, an unusual friendship between an American Indian boy and a young girl hungry for knowledge and ahead of her time in many ways illuminates two cultures that continue to clash in many ways today.
One of the novel`s few shortcomings is its pacing, which sometimes feels a bit plodding despite the story`s inherent drama. Shipwrecks, fatal illnesses, even an accidental drowning — all feel similarly accepted and overcome with the austerity of the time. Of course, it`s also possible this was all part of a masterful writer`s original intent.