In 1665, the first Native American graduated from Harvard College, then one of the first colleges established in the New World. Not much is known about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, beyond the fact that he belonged to the Wampanoag Indian tribe that inhabited a part of today’s Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
With so little to start out with, it is perhaps not surprising that Geraldine Brooks decided to tell the story from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, a preacher’s daughter who grows up in the same area as Caleb. She meets Caleb during one of her trips around the island, and the two become friends. Through Bethia’s eyes, we look at life in a small Puritan village, the everyday trials and hardships, and the tentative relations with the island’s native inhabitants. Bethia is smart and eager to learn, and she frequently chafes at the restrictions that are placed on her. Secretly, she learns alongside her brother, who is being prepared for his studies at Harvard.
Eventually, Bethia’s brother, Caleb, and a second Native American are being sent to Cambridge to prepare for Harvard’s entrance examinations. In order to pay for her brother’s studies, Bethia agrees to become the indentured housekeeper at the prep school. Thus she is able to witness Caleb’s life first at Cambridge and then at Harvard.
The story is told in retrospective, so the reader gets a glimpse into what happened to Bethia, Caleb, and the colony in the years following Caleb’s graduation, which was a neat way to wrap up the story.
As can be expected from Geraldine Brooks, she has created a solid piece of historical fiction that reads well and entertains. I enjoyed reading about life on the island and the early struggles of the college. Yet I can’t say that Bethia and I became great friends. While she had a number of obstacles to overcome, her story struck me as almost too idyllic. I had also hoped for a greater focus on Caleb, considering the title of the book. Yet with so little fact known about him, I can understand why Brooks set up the book as she did, as explained in her afterword.
Two years ago, I read Brooks’ People of the Book, which was fascinating. I was hoping for a similar reading experience, but found something more along the lines of her Year of Wonders, which was okay, but not outstanding.