A young Puritan minister's daughter, Bethia, is slightly rebellious and wants to have a formal education--something refused to women in the 1600s, when this book is set. Her desire for knowledge and knack for languages instigates friction between herself and her family as her father teaches her brother Latin, Greek and Hebrew to prepare him for the life of a minister. Father angers when he realizes that Bethia is a better student than her brother, Makepeace, and forbids her from more learning. In order to quench her lust for knowledge, Bethia begins to eavesdrop on her brother’s lessons and "borrow" school books or her father’s books and study them in private.
Bethia’s father is a minister who preaches to the Wampanoag Indians on a New England island, and Bethia is a girl who struggles to accept her place in the world as a woman and future wife. There is no other option for Bethia in the 1600s, and she is determined to follow the example of her mother. Throughout the course of this novel, she struggles to resist rebelling against this destiny, by seeking her own fulfillment.
And then she meets Caleb. Caleb, who is a Wampanoag Indian and the nephew to the wampaw (witch doctor) that is Bethia’s father’s nemesis. Caleb, who teaches Bethia his language as he learns English from her. Caleb, in more ways than one, changes Bethia’s life. He becomes not just a friend, but more a brother than her own brother has ever--or will ever--be.
What transpires throughout this novel is the telling of Caleb’s education throughout the years, as he is taught English and started in Latin, Hebrew and Greek first from Bethia's father, then becomes the first Indian graduate from Harvard. His knack for language parallels Bethia’s, and she, through a twist of fate (I won’t spoil it), follows him to Harvard. At Harvard, Bethia finds love and continues her education through eavesdropping.
Although the ending is certainly bittersweet, it is reminiscent of life. Caleb’s Crossing is based on a real person, but the story itself is fictional. The story of Caleb crossing from one world into the next, however, is certainly factual. He crossed from the Wampanoags to the English and found that combining the two was harder than imagined.
I would definitely read this again. It was quiet and thoughtful, sad and yet enjoyable. The writing was fluent and elegant. A worthwhile read.