Caleb’s Experience is inspired by the little known story of the first native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. Caleb, a Wampanoag from the island of Martha’s Vineyard, seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts, grew up in the first generation of Indians to experience contact with English settlers. (The first English settled the island in 1641, to escape the brutal and doctrinaire Puritanism of the Massachusetts Bay colony.)
The story is told through the eyes of Bethia, daughter of the English minister who educates Caleb in the Latin and Greek he needs in order to enter the college. As Caleb makes the crossing into white culture, Bethia, 14 years old at the novel’s opening, finds herself pulled in the opposite direction. Trapped by the narrow strictures of her faith and her gender, she seeks connections with Caleb’s world that will challenge her beliefs and set her at odds with her community.