Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore's most recent novel has an adoption theme. It's not necessarily the main theme but rather is presented as a synecdoche of the whole story. The main character is Tassie Keltjin, a Midwestern country girl newly arrived at college, who embraces learning, literature, and intellectual snobbery while navigating that push-and-pull relationship with her roots and shifting identity typical of her age. When she takes a job as a nanny for a 40-something white couple who are adopting a biracial baby girl, she's given a new identity to try on as well as an outsider-yet-insider vantage point on the adoption.

Tassie accompanies the adoptive mom to meetings with social workers, a foster family, and a birth mother (note: this would never happen in real life!), observing the complex gains and losses of the situation. She seems to be the only one who sees the birth mother's pain. Tessie cares for the baby every day, takes her shopping and on walks in the park, gets the questioning looks from strangers wondering what a white chick is doing toting around a brown baby. She feels wounded when someone yells "nigger!" at the child. She babysits while eavesdropping on the a-mom's discussions with the few people of color in town about raising brown children in a white world.

A lot of things in this story rang true for me. A car keeps driving by the house. Tessie notices the a-mom's fear about it is not fear of the racists she thinks herself so vehemently opposed to but rather "the gone-missing birth father...she imagined it might be he who was driving past, having somehow found out Mary-Emma's new address." Fear of the birth parent returning, and in this case an even scarier prospect: the black male birth parent. Moore brilliantly describes that sort of silent, bubbling prejudice against difference (an adopted kid, a biracial kid) that can exist in the rural Midwest. It's the kind that everybody knows about but nobody talks about. The kind that, "like mold, grows in secret, dark places."

Overall, I think Moore deals with the adoption in a nuanced way, creating believable characters that are all deeply flawed but doing their best. That is often the conclusion I come to in adoption stories--it's full of fathers and mothers and children who are flawed and hurting but doing their best in a situation of loss.

The little adopted girl grieves her losses and bonds with the new people around her, though it is not without complications. Her life is shifting and changing constantly, much like the life of her country bumpkin nanny whose world is expanding at lightening speed.

From a literary standpoint, there are, of course, shortcomings--some events were device-y and had a tagged-on feeling, and the ending seemed rushed--but Moore gained so many points with the adoption stuff and her beautiful language that I still give it a thumbs-up, especially for people interested in adoption or Midwest culture.

1 comment:

Patti's Pages said...

I enjoyed this book also--both plot and language. It reminded somewhat of a couple of Curtis Sittenfeld books.