Geraldine Brooks was born and raised in Australia, but currently maintains a residence on Martha’s Vineyard, the small, idyllic island off the coast of Massachusetts that today serves as a tranquil getaway for the wealthy. That Brooks chose to place the setting of her novel Caleb’s Crossing on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as in Cambridge, is a product of her fascination with that region’s local history and, in particular, with the legacy of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wampanoag tribe who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University. Cheeshahteaumauk’s story inspired Brooks and she placed this historical figure at the center of her novel about the clashes and assimilations involving the colonization of what is now called New England. The earliest settlers in Massachusetts, of course, were the Puritans, many of whom saw as their mission the conversion of the indigenous population to Christianity. Because Caleb’s Crossing was inspired by the real-life figure of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, and because Brooks is enamored of the history of her adopted home, which included the Puritan settlements and the inevitable clashes between their and the indigenous peoples’ cultures, the setting for Brooks’ novel is vital to the construct of her story.
While Caleb’s Crossing was inspired by Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, however, the novel’s main protagonist and narrator is Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Calvinist minister, whose mother and twin brother Zuriel have both died, along with the infant brother during whose aborted birth the mother passed away. Again, Brooks’ choice of setting is important in that, by focusing on the trials and tribulations of a minister in 17th Century Massachusetts, a major part of whose mission in life is the conversion of the native population to Christianity, and who takes into his home the young Wampanoag Caleb, whose relationship to Bethia would prove among the novel’s most pivotal, the author has reaped fertile literary ground. The novel’s setting provides the basis for myriad conflicts while indulging the author’s interest in the first Native American to graduate from what would become the nation’s, and possibly the world’s, most prestigious academic institution. Beyond the drama inherent to that time and place – 17th Century North American history – Brooks use of the small island that would become one of country’s most notable locales for the rich and famous to escape the omniscience of the tabloid media provided a built-in setting of definite geographical and cultural parameters. Bethia grows up on that island, by nature an isolated and potentially claustrophobic environment, and initially views its inhabitants as subhuman. Early in the novel, Brooks has his narrator provide a description of her earliest impressions:
“Our neighbors. As a child I did not think of them so. I suppose, like everyone, I called them savages, pagans, barbarians, the heathens. As a child, in fact, I barely thought of them at all.” [Italics is in original text]
The introduction into her life of the young Wampanoag Caleb, a native of the island, of course, would radically transform the way Bethia viewed the indigenous population. Another factor involved in establishing setting, however, is the break between Bethia’s father and the more puritanical settlement led by John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts Bay colony, “a man of estimable parts, but a man increasingly willing to wield cruel punishments against those whose ideas did not accord with his own.” Bethia’s father, a considerably more liberal and tolerant individual than the increasingly autocratic Winthrop, responded to his own break with the most powerful and influential figure in Massachusetts by relocating to Martha’s Vineyard.
In conclusion, then, the setting of Caleb’s Crossing is integral and inseparable from the story Brooks chose to tell. This novel takes place during a time and in a setting that could really only revolve around the cultural and religious conflicts that characterized the relationship between English settler and Native American.