Caleb's Crossing Questions and Answers
by Geraldine Brooks

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What is the importance of the setting in Geraldine Brooks' novel Caleb's Crossing?

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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...

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