Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2011: When Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks came to live on Martha’s Vineyard in 2006, she ran across a map by the island’s native Wampanoag people that marked the birthplace of Caleb, first Native American to graduate of Harvard College–in 1665. Her curiosity piqued, she unearthed and fleshed out his thin history, immersing herself in the records of his tribe, of the white families that settled the island in the 1640s, and 17th-century Harvard. In Caleb’s Crossing, Brooks offers a compelling answer to the riddle of how–in an era that considered him an intellectually impaired savage–he left the island to compete with the sons of the Puritanical elite. She relates his story through the impassioned voice of the daughter of the island’s Calvinist minister, a brilliant young woman who aches for the education her father wastes on her dull brother. Bethia Mayfield meets Caleb at twelve, and their mutual affinity for nature and knowledge evolves into a clandestine, lifelong bond. Bethia’s father soon realizes Caleb’s genius for letters and prepares him for study at Harvard, while Bethia travels to Cambridge under much less auspicious circumstances. This window on early academia fascinates, but the book breathes most thrillingly in the island’s salt-stung air, and in the end, its questions of the power and cost of knowledge resound most profoundly not in Harvard’s halls, but in the fire of a Wampanoag medicine man. –Mari Malcolm
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