This is the best border tale I’ve read, a masterpiece masterfully told, the language and dialogue as taut and radiant as the afternoon desert sun. (Some spoilers below.)
Our two teen heroes, living in the frontier of New Mexico’s bootheel, make a bad decision during an encounter with a stranger, a destitute Indian, and the entire family pays a terrible price – eventually.
In the meantime, a she-wolf has slipped north over the border from the Mexican mountains and started to pick off the family’s calves. In the book’s understated style, as coiled and sparse as the local English dialect, it is a struggle for survival – though no one ever claims that and it is only through their actions that we understand the peril. The father and eldest son, Billy, set numerous traps with rusty old steel contraptions baited with strange scents from the vials of a passed away wolf hunter. But the she-wolf, who is pregnant, is too clever for them.
Stoically, Billy Parham continues the rounds, checking traps, moving and resetting traps which the wolf has harmlessly sprung. As if in the she-wolf’s company – which, indeed, he later becomes – he has many episodic encounters, which become The Crossing’s motif: who next will the boy-man meet? And at what peril?
A local rancher lights a cigarette after asking Billy if he smokes. Notice the accumulative declarative sentences and the startling, action verbs. [p.37]
He struck it and a bluish ball of flame wooshed up. He lit the cigarette and snapped the lighter shut but it continued to burn anyway. He blew it out and dandled it in one to cool it. He looked at the boy.
I had to quit usin the hightest, he said.
No sir. I aint but sixteen.
Don’t get married. Women are crazy.
You’ll think you’ve found out that aint but guess what?
She will be too.
When the boy finally outsmarts the she-wolf, whose leg is snared, he is unsure of his father’s instructions – which he must follow or else. Is he to kill her on the spot? What of the unborn pups? It is also late, and his father had instructed him not to return home after dinner again.
So Billy captures the she-wolf – by lassoing her and tying her mouth shut over a hard bit of stick – and decides on something rash. He is going to take her south, over the border, and return her to the Mexican mountains from which she came. He also has the family’s one rifle.
It is the first of several fateful crossings in the book, at a time when border fences didn’t exist and, if you’re on a more traveled dirt road, you are waved through on both sides, no documents needed – just your hat-tip or your word.
The boy’s relation with the wolf becomes focal and she comes to trust him. Eventually she is stolen from him by a corrupt alguacil (sheriff) and placed in a betting ring to fight off packs and packs of dogs. Our hero, defeated, does the impossible, an act of supreme integrity in front of the swollen, drunken crowd: he mercy kills her with his rifle and then trades the rifle, worth many times over the bounty given for a dead wolf, so that he may bury her.
He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar not by any wound of war. What we may believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot he held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it. [p.127]
In such a closing, a dirge of images and words, ends Part 1, tragically. As Part II cautions from its first sentence, “Doomed enterprises divide lives forever in the then and the now.” [p.129] Adrift, our hero wanders for a time. More emaciated than his horse, he finds much charity and much that is fantastic, especially south of the border. He hears long tales told by former priests, told in the third person that eventually reveal the speaker and subject to be one and the same. (This was the book’s one long plot-digression that I found to be nearly intolerable, after the she-wolf’s burial.)
Eventually he returns home to find tragedy, the homestead destroyed, the horses stolen, his parents dead. His younger brother Boyd, in an adopted home, has been waiting for him. The two abscond south, on a mission to recover the family’s only tangible remaining wealth – and perhaps honor – found in the stolen steeds.
The book continues in like episodic fashion, the bare landscapes, the bare language highlighting the hard ethical decisions the boys must make. From a simple plot perspective, I felt compelled to discover how the boys’ (especially Billy’s) integrity and gumption would take up the next challenge, that character is truly king where every word is potentially lethal. In such a manner it was difficult to put the book down.
The boys, with a Mexican grandmother, are bilingual. Interestingly a fair amount of (brief) conversations on both sides of the border are left in Spanish, a thankfully proper and slang-free Spanish, while the English is free to roam through local dialects.
Language, of course, is a “crossing” itself. So, clearly, is culture, with stark contrasts sharply divided, even though the “bootheel” was part of Mexico historically. Included in culture is a wildly different state-of-mind. Trust, safety, and law are all far greater north; the instinctual charity of the very poorest and over-the-top personalities greater south. As a reader I felt a atmospheric relief when our heroes cross north – just as I do when returning to the States after extended stays abroad.
The crossing, then – like all good borders – is a prolonged metaphor, for a human condition beset by the unknown and unknowable, the tragic and the inscrutable, the here and the thereafter.
Our main protagonist, Billy – whose integrity and bravery startle throughout – at last humbles himself in the book’s last scene:
He took off his hat and placed it on the tarmac before him and he bowed his head and held his face in his hands and wept. He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction. [p.425]
Here the language soars one last time and nearly becomes biblical. Notice the repetition, so common to the King James Bible; one of the book’s few references to the Creator; and the echo of Matthew’s verse in which “he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good.” (Matthew 5:45) In case we didn’t already know, it is difficult to be fully educated without a thorough knowledge of the bible.
This is the middle, coming-of-age book of a trilogy. (Having picked up The Crossing first, I intend to read the others.) The first of the trilogy won a National Book Award and The Crossing was a Book-of-the-Month main selection, deservedly so.
It is a timeless tale, so much so that when toward book’s end we learn that it mostly occurs prior to World War II, it surprises. The tale – save for a few more modern conveniences – could have occurred a century or more before, or after, crossing time.