Little is known about Caleb Cheeshahteuamauk other than that he was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. In order to tell us his story Brooks has crafted a fictional one that plausibly and compellingly fills in the gaps between the few known facts of his life.
It begins on the island now known as Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coastline where we meet Berthia Mayfield, the 12 year-old daughter of the Island’s Calvinist minister. Although she has a deep faith and attempts to fulfill the role that her religion and her family demand of her, she also yearns to read and be taught like her brothers. And despite the fact he is a good man, more Christian in practice than many who claim that title, her father does not accede to her wishes. On one occasion when he catches her proving that she has learned some lesson her older brother can’t quite grasp
“Berthia, why do you strive so hard to quit the place in which God has set you?” His voice was gentle, not angry. “Your path is not your brother’s, it cannot be. Women are not made like men. You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you. I care only for your present health and your future happiness. It is not seemly for a wife to know more than her husband…”
Berthia continues to absorb information though, eavesdropping on her father’s teachings as she works by her mother’s side and re-reading the handful of books in the family home. And when she meets a young Indian boy she befriends him, knowing that it would not be approved of if her family were to find out but feeling that she might have an opportunity to convert him to the Christian teachings, just as her father tries to do with the island’s adult Wampanoag population. For several years the two learn each other’s language and engage in discussions of spirituality, herbalism and other weighty matters until it is time for Caleb to temporarily leave his community and undertake the ritual that will allow him to become a man. Eventually Caleb and Berthia meet up again as Berthia’s father takes in Caleb and another Indian boy to get them ready for attending preparatory school and, hopefully, Harvard College.
As she has done successfully before, particularly with Year of Wonders, Brooks has again taken a small, little-known event and used it to explore big themes alongside her engaging storytelling. The conflict between two cultures – with different language, beliefs, societal structures – is captured well. We see a range of attitudes and behaviours on both ‘sides’ of the fence and these undoubtedly reflect the range of opinions of the day and are probably similar to every such instance the world has seen. Another theme common to Brooks’ work, the roles of religion and faith in community and personal life, is again thoughtfully explored. I like her sensitivity to this topic about which it would be easy to either be overly cynical or gushing depending on one’s own beliefs but Brooks merely describes its role in the lives of her characters as realistically as she can and allows readers to judge, should they wish to.
Although she has tackled the issue of women’s issues before, especially in times and cultures like this where a woman’s true virtue is to be silent and invisible, it does no harm to do so again, especially when done so thoughtfully as it is here. Berthia is no unrealistic-for-her-time radical feminist and she is conflicted between knowing what is expected of her and wanting more. She doesn’t want to be seen to look down on her mother’s life, which had no education or other ‘unseemly’ activity, but she can’t help how she feels. She really is a beautifully drawn character who I think most readers would engage with.
Conversely the character of Caleb, ostensibly the central one of the story, is not quite so well-rounded. He is absent for large chunks of the story and it is only in the first portion of the story, where he is a largely untroubled teenager roaming his home island with Berthia, that we get much sense of all the different aspects of his personality that make him a human being. After he decides to focus on obtaining English education, which Brooks ascribes to a yearning to be able to help his troubled people, we only see a very occasional glimpse of him as anything other than the always studious young man. I wondered whether or not Brooks didn’t feel as free to use her creativity with Caleb’s character because he was based on a real person, whereas Berthia began and ended life in her imagination.
The stories of Berthia and Caleb, both wanting something different than their society wanted them to have, were equally compelling. As their stories unfolded via a very natural-feeling use of contemporary language with its own cadence, I was at different points happy, angry and sad for them both but in the end very satisfied, if somewhat melancholic, to have found this beautiful book.