Review: Caleb's Crossing By Geraldine Brooks

Set in the 17th century on Martha's Vineyard, a new novel from Geraldine Brooks tells the tale of a Puritan family — and one daughter's relationship with the son of a Wampanoag chieftain who would become the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Australian Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks has a new novel. It's an American story of native and immigrant cultures meeting in the colonial era.

Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, found it both engrossing and surprising.

ALAN CHEUSE: Brooks sets her novel on Martha's Vineyard in the late 17th century. Her narrator, an often-doubting, learned Puritan farmer's daughter named Bethia Mayfield, discovers that she can turn her native intelligence to good use picking up Hebrew and Greek and Latin by eavesdropping on her father's tutoring of her older brother.

But Bethia's got another side to her awareness, a pagan swath as broad as her skirt, and that takes her out into the woods and onto the beaches of this then quite isolated island off the Massachusetts coast.

On one of her solitary ramblings, she encounters a wild young native son, a Wampanoag Indian with an intellect as great as hers, who becomes adopted by her preacher farmer father.

He tutors the young man who eventually crosses over into Anglo-American culture, thus the title. Caleb in fact becomes the first of his tribe to graduate from the new university in Cambridge, Mass, called Harvard.

Bethia tells this story in a voice just archaic enough to seem authentic. The more I allowed that I learned what my older could not, the more it began to vex Father, she says. And it's just contemporary enough for us to become fully engaged in her story. A more inauthentic and romantic writer than Brooks might have jazzed up the entangled friendship of Bethia and the Indian Caleb. But Brooks takes the more difficult path, and shows us what seems the real truth of life in that time, that it was different from our own, truly different. And with her narrative gifts, helps us to cross over into this odd island of our past.

NORRIS: The new novel from Geraldine Brooks is called "Caleb's Crossing." Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. His latest book is "Songs of Slaves in the Desert."

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