Don’t lose heart

A Gate at the Stairs

Tassie Keltjin thought she was simply taking a job as a baby sitter to earn a little money during her first year of college. Over the course of a year, though, the job turns into much more than a source of additional income as she enters adulthood and learns about the burdens of life and the moments—seconds, really—that we wish we could take back and do over again.

A Gate at the Stairs tells the coming-of-age story of Tassie, a 20-year-old woman who moves to the fictitious Midwestern university town of Troy, fresh from living a simple life on the farm, with her emotionally distant mother and her father, a farmer famed for his organic potatoes. She also has a younger brother, a well-liked guy who does poorly in high school and flounders over his future, eventually deciding to enlist in the military.

Away at college, Tassie’s eyes open wide to the wonders and excitement of a newly expansive world. She eats Chinese food for the first time. She takes classes in Sufism, wine tasting and “the Neutral Pelvis.” In her spare time, she reads Zen poems and commiserates with the tortured writings of Sylvia Plath.

Set immediately following 9/11, this beautifully written novel by Lorrie Moore subtly explores this anxious era and the misguided reflections of liberal white Americans on modern race relations. Known for her short stories—most notably the widely praised Birds of America—Moore has written six books, but this is her first novel in 15 years.

And what a novel it is.

Tassie’s employed by a middle-aged couple to care for their recently adopted daughter, who happens to be biracial (African-American and white). The adoptive mother, Sarah Brink, the owner of a fancy restaurant in town, has long been desperate for a child to raise. She’s a paranoid woman, highly sensitive to the perceived prejudices she experiences as the white mother of a biracial child on one hand, and suspicious of Tassie’s Brazilian boyfriend on the other.

As Tassie grows to love the child, the mysterious couple who employs her gradually shares a tragic secret. Unfortunately, this will not be the only time she receives unsettling news through the course of the school year.

Moore fleshes out Tassie as a relatable, vulnerable young woman who struggles with love and heartbreak, along with the realization that growing into adulthood often leads to a “lonely and more certain place” of betrayal and darkness. But, as Tassie says, “One had to get on with life, out of good manners if nothing else.” And so the characters do, although life is no longer veiled in innocence.

At one point Tassie reflects on a reoccurring dream, saying, “They were like visions, really, but ones I’d not had as a child, when I’d slept through the night with a depth and stillness that was no longer possible.”

This story needs humor, not just suffering—as Tassie points out in the book—and Moore infuses some laughs and wit, but the humor does little to overshadow the pain. There’s even some political commentary on the meaningless and unjust Iraq war that has sent thousands of lost young soldiers to early graves.

Tassie discovers her sense of self and becomes more resilient. She rides her scooter in the rain on slick country roads, 60 miles back home to the farm and her waiting parents. “My hair was being blown and tangled into stiff sticks of straw,” she says. “The key was not to lose heart.”