Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Caleb's Crossing - by Geraldine Brooks

Based on the true story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, Caleb's Crossing tells this story from the point of view of the fictitious Bethia Mayfield, a young woman who lives in the English settlement of Great Harbor on Martha's Vineyard. As a young girl, Bethia befriends Caleb, a Wampanoag, and the two become intrigued by each other's worlds. As young adults both Bethia and Caleb leave the island to go to Cambridge. While Caleb matriculates at Harvard Bethia's passage to the mainland is as an indentured servant in support of her brother who also intends to enroll at Harvard. Although young women were not able to attend the university in the 1600s, Bethia manages to use her work to listen to lectures so as to gain the education she desperately seeks.  She also finds romance among the books in the university library!

After she is introduced to young Samuel Corlett, she shows great interest in his personal library. Samuel now knows how to win the lady, and suggests that she might enjoy a visit to John Harvard's library. Bethia is clearly impressed with "the most beautiful room...with lecterns [of] polished wood gleaming dully in the good light. Each held a shelf, snug with volumes..." She also learns that entrance to the library is a privilege that even the college's young scholars do not have. Samuel explains to her
They are expected to purchase those books required for their course of study. These (books) are for the use of fellows, such as myself - for those, like me, in pursuit of the higher degrees.
The library represents temptation and desire as the room comes to represent both of Bethia's yearnings. Alone in the library, Bethia and Samuel discuss making a life together, but as strong as her "womanly desires"  for her suitor are, she keeps them at bay long enough to take advantage of her housekeeping position in order to listen in on lessons at the college. She knows, also, that developing her intellectual abilities will make her that much more attractive to Samuel.

I was pleasantly surprised by the library's role in this work. If I expected to see a library at all, it was only as a passing mention.

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