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When my sons bristle about doing their homework, it annoys me, just as I'm sure it does any mother. But in my case the annoyance is heightened by experiences I had before they were born, working as a foreign correspondent in the dark and troubled places on the globe. There, I met so many children who longed to learn, who thought attending school was a privilege. But they were barred from education by poverty or war or cultural norms that reserved schooling for a particular gender or social class.
Those children were very much on my mind as I wrote my novel, Caleb's Crossing. It is inspired by the true story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665. He was a Wampanoag Indian, born into his own language and culture on the island of Martha's Vineyard, just a few years after the first small band of English colonists had settled there. Bethia, the young woman who narrates my fictional account of Caleb's life, is the daughter of the settlers' minister, a thoughtful man who loves and promotes learning, but not for women. In the mid-seventeenth century, common thinking was that too much education would addle a woman's wits and make her an unfit wife. Girls might, if they were lucky, learn to read, so that they could read the Bible, but writing was considered a male skill, and higher studies, such as Latin and Greek literature, were quite out of the question. Bethia, however, is determined to learn, and snatches her education by eavesdropping on her brother's classes while she is supposed to be busy at her household chores. (I was inspired here by the story of a young girl in modern Afghanistan, banned from school by the Taliban. Every day, she climbed onto the roof of her house so she could overhear the lessons her brother received in the madrassa next door.)
Caleb, son of a chief, also seeks knowledge. As he begins to understand that the coming of the English will change everything for his people, he realizes that he will have to learn what they know in order to help his band survive. Bethia and Caleb have so little in common. Their concepts of what is Godly and what constitutes a good and honorable life are much at odds. But they share a passion for learning, no matter what the risks, and their open, curious minds draw them closer and bring each into the alien world of the other.
If there is one most frequently asked question at author appearances, it is probably this: Where do you get the ideas for your novels? I have always liked Ernest Hemingway's answer, that an idea for a novel can be something you're lucky enough to overhear, or the wreck of your whole damn life. Luckily, none of the ideas for my novels have come out of personal wreckage. So far. They have come to me variously: a sign noticed on a ramble in the English countryside led me to a village once stricken by plague, and the novel that became Year of Wonders. A Civil War soldier's belt buckle dug up in our yard inspired March. Some barroom gossip regarding the whereabouts of a priceless Hebrew manuscript in wartime Sarajevo begat People of the Book.
The idea for Caleb's Crossing came from a notation on a map of Martha's Vineyard showing sites of significance to the Wampanoag Indians who have lived on the island for millennia. The map showed Caleb's birthplace right near our home, and noted that he was Harvard's first Native American graduate. How cool, I thought. Maybe I will run into him one day at the library. I was thinking 1965, not 1665. When my mind absorbed the true date, I was stunned. I immediately started researching to find what was known of this remarkable young man.
Sadly, the historical record is scant. But I did find a wealth of detail about life at early Harvard, which I was surprised to learn had been founded "for the education of the English and Indian youth of this country."
The novel is a journey into the earliest days of English life in this country, when a different future was still possible between the newcomers and the native inhabitants. To write it, I had to clear my mind of what I knew was coming, and try to inhabit the minds of characters who could still envision a shared future on the land.