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A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

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A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

It has been 11 years since Lorrie Moore’s last book, Birds of America, a collection of short stories. And 15 years since her best-selling novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Now we have A Gate at the Stairs – very quietly garnering rave reviews and being read by readers who, like me, say “oh, a new Lorrie Moore”, and hope that this one is as good as the last – and it is.

Sometimes when there has been such a long time between books the new one is a disappointment – sometimes a writer just doesn’t have any more to say. That is not the case with Lorrie Moore. In this novel Lorrie Moore captures the character of a 20 year old young woman perfectly – just as she did the teenage girls in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

A Gate at the Stairs follows Tassie Keltjin through her first year at college in the American mid-west. Tassie is 20 years old, a farm girl in the big city, taking an assortment of Liberal Arts courses, discovering sex – the usual. I laughed when she spoke of coming from a town where you could order “steak cooked to your likeness”. Tassie’s parents are likeable people, good parents, her father a farmer of exotic vegetables; her mother Jewish, her father a relaxed Christian. The kids, Tassie and her brother Robert, raised in a loving, supportive home. Robert is still at home struggling through his last year of high school and Tassie is away at college.

As Christmas approaches Tassie looks for a job, and childcare seems to be something she can do. She is hired by Sarah and Edward, a couple about to adopt a baby girl, a toddler really, a part African-American child. The child, Mary, who is re-named Mary Emma, comes into the home of Sarah and Edward as a foster child until the adoption is finalized. Emmie is a lovely child and immediately wins the hearts of Sarah and Tassie, who come to love her deeply. But we know, somehow, as we read, that this is not going to end well.

Lorrie Moore is very protective of her private life, but I know that she is the parent (now single parent) of an adopted part African-American son; so she knows what she is writing about when she writes about the experiences of a white parent of a black child – and the assumptions that are made.

Tassie works for Sarah and Edward a few days a week, and evenings, throughout the winter, becoming entwined in their relationship, knowing that there is something more here than is obvious. It is not until near the end of the story that Sarah reveals the history of her marriage and we all know the heart-breaking past.

The school year comes to an end and Tassie returns home for the summer. She works for her father in the fields, and recovers from the experiences of the past school year by reading, reading, reading and driving her motor scooter around the countryside. Robert has joined the military after his graduation as he seems to have no idea what he might like to do with himself, and expects that he might come out of the military and go to college sometime in the future on a military scholarship.

I’m not going to reveal any more of this story. It was a book I picked up expecting to be disappointed – and found myself swept away in the story of a young woman I felt I knew as intimately as my own self, and was sorry to part with her at the end. A Gate at the Stairs is a book you will close and hold, and remember for a good long time.

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