Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Crossing over to Harvard

That an American Indian, a member of the Wopanaak tribe, graduated from Harvard in 1665, more than a century before American independence, seems amazing today, as it must have seemed then. It becomes even more amazing when you consider that the second member of his tribe to earn a Harvard degree didn't do it until 2011. Beyond that little is actually known about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, Geraldine Brooks imaginatively fills in the blanks in her 2011 novel Caleb's Crossing. The title refers literally to his crossing over from the island now known as Martha's Vineyard to the mainland to attend the college and figuratively to his crossing over the wide gap between two cultures.

Brooks tells her story through the eyes of Bethia, the daughter of a Christian missionary to the island Indians, and indeed the novel is more about her than it is about Caleb. The two become secret friends as children and become familiar with each other's language and culture. Each possesses a great intellect and a thirst for knowledge. The irony is that while Caleb is permitted to attend Harvard, Bethia is not because the college admits men only. Yet Bethia finds a way to get a Harvard education anyway, getting a job as a servant that allows her to eavesdrop on college lectures.

There is much here about the negative attitudes of the day toward both Indians and women, and especially Indian women, as we find when an Indian girl in the Harvard community becomes pregnant and Bethia puts her position on the line to save her.

The novel spans many years in its 300 pages, and Bethia is a very old woman when she concludes her story. Caleb, however, died while still a young man, perhaps a victim of the very culture he crossed such a wide divide to join.

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