Twelve-year-old Bethia Mayfield was raised in a God-fearing colonial household on what is now Martha’s Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast. It is a rough existence, and day-to-day living in primitive conditions is often difficult. Her father ministers to the local Native Americans, and though his goal is to convert them to Christianity, he treats them fairly and with dignity. Education is rare in the colonial wilderness, and unheard of for young women, yet Bethia’s natural curiosity leads her to absorb all that she can from her brothers’ lessons.
While on a walk, Bethia encounters a young Wampanoag man whose English name is Caleb. Caleb shares his knowledge of survival in the wild and teaches Bethia his language, while Bethia begins to share the bits of knowledge she has picked up. Both are quick learners, and they soon find themselves friends, despite their vastly different backgrounds. When Caleb’s extraordinary knowledge is “discovered,” he is taken in by the Mayfield family in the hopes of furthering his education—thus beginning a chain of events that lead Caleb, and Bethia, to the fledgling Harvard University.
Very little is known about Caleb, and only one document—a letter, in Latin, to Caleb’s benefactors in England—survives. Brooks has taken the barest scrap of a story and breathed life into it, turning Caleb into a realistic, conflicted young man with drives and desires. Bethia is a fine narrator whose curiosity and innocence provide her with an open mind and a perspective untainted by the bitterness of survival. The settings are vividly described—there were moments when I felt I could smell the tang of salt in the island air or the stench of colonial Cambridge. This is a rich, thought-provoking novel that will stay with readers long after the last page has been turned.