Brooks is a dedicated chronicler of American historical fiction, Caleb's Crossing a tale begun in 1660 at Great Harbor, a small settlement on Martha’s Vineyard. An independent group of settlers, the residents of Great Harbor are God-fearing, hardworking men and women that demand much of themselves and their families. Chores are proscribed: women to the hearth, men to leadership and education.
As the Rev. Mayfield instructs his elder son, Makepeace, in the classics in preparation for an advanced education, his daughter, Bethia, does her chores near teacher and student, absorbing the knowledge that is for Makepeace so hard-won. Naturally he resents his sister’s acuity and attempts at every opportunity to expose her unseemly ambitions in front of their father.
While roaming the fields in search of healing plants, fruit and other edibles, Bethia makes the accidental acquaintance of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk of the Wampanog tribe, a young man being raised by a shaman uncle who deeply resents the reverend’s incursions into tribal matters. It is Reverend Mayfield’s mission to instruct the tribes about the Christian God. But Caleb is not bound by his uncle’s enmity, a creature of both worlds with a generous spirit who happily teaches Bethia his language and customs as they enjoy a brief time of friendship. When she learns that Caleb will be tutored by her father in preparation to entering Harvard College with another Indian student, Bethia is secretly thrilled. Caleb will be the first Native American to graduate Harvard in 1665, an accomplishment that gives him a place in history but demands all he holds dear for that honor.
Events conspire to drastically change Bethia’s life: the death of both her parents and contracting as an indentured servant to make Makepeace’s education at Harvard possible, her only reward an abiding faith and the proximity to Caleb as he pursues the knowledge she is denied by birth and sex. As thirsty as the young man for education, both are outcasts, forced to hard choices and terrible sacrifices to gain the rewards of a rigid society rife with racism and the petty cruelties of those who believe themselves superior by virtue of the color of their skin.
Caleb suffers greatly but is dedicated to his purpose, ostracized with his fellow Indian student by the others, his once-robust body diminished by lack of food and exercise but his spirit glowing with inner strength and a superior intellect. Bethia suffers as well - for her friend’s exclusion by the other students, the innate damage of such behavior, and the few options allowed her sex when choosing a future. Bethia’s burden of constant guilt for every thought and deed, her begging of forgiveness through each long day from childhood to old age becomes tedious, a constant flagellation of self in service to a demanding God. In contrast, Caleb’s beliefs are more expansive and generous, his generous and open spirit in sharp contrast to Bethia’s fearful and fraught existence.
In the end, Caleb achieves his goal, a fact Brooks celebrates in this novel. But all is won at the altar of a new country’s demand for conformity, a society with little accommodation for differences or intelligence beyond the usual standards. We slog through the nightmare of Caleb’s education and Bethia’s litany of disappointments, the simmering cauldron of racial animus and assumed superiority, the age-old struggle of the exceptional against the strictures of society. Caleb graduates but at a terrible price, his degree a source of pride purchased with the loss of individualism and the Native American way of life.