A Gate at the Stairs is the story of Tassie Keltjin,the daughter of a potato farmer in rural Wisconsin. In the days before 9-11, she is a college student At the University of Wisconsin in Troy, Wisconsin. Like most college students she is cash poor, and so she begins looking for a job to keep herself in clothes and food and heat. She applies to be the nanny for Sarah and Edward Thornwood-Brink, a couple in the process of adopting a biracial baby. From very early on Tassie can sense that something is not quite right with Sarah and Edward. Their manner is just-off from normal, their interactions are intimate and cold at the same time. Tassie never imagines, however, the secret that will come to affect her life and the life of the little girl, Mary-Emma. This novel is a strange, uncomfortable coming of age story, one that left me feeling unsettled, and unsure I really got what Moore was trying to convey.
Moore's writing is rich. Her language shows a depth of thought and a flair for metaphor greater than any other author I've read recently. There are long passages where Tassie is thinking about her life and events in the story that would be worthy of a circus contortionist in the way they bend and twist, making seemingly random connections into something meaningful. This was really interesting for the first three quarters of the novel, but over time I found myself wishing for a more straight-forward narrative. But then, about three quarters of the way through the novel is where I started to feel like the story I thought I was reading was not actually the story Moore was telling.
While most of the story revolves around Tassie's relationship with Sarah and Mary-Emma, there are other, seemingly disparate, stories woven throughout. Tassie has a secret relationship with a fellow student who turns out to belong to a fanatical Islamist organization. When he disappears from her life suddenly, I expected there to be some fall-out for her, but he just fades from the story. When she loses Mary-Emma, I expected there to be some resolution to that storyline, but we never hear what becomes of the little girl. The loss of her brother is the only one in which we get a sense of how that loss affected not just Tassie but her parents as well-and that is the last quarter of the book. The theme of loss is the only constant throughout the story, but it is only with that last loss that we see exactly how deeply Tassie feels her sorrow.
One thing that struck me about this book is all of the white liberal-guilt and angst portrayed by Moore through the interracial adoption group that Sarah and Edward become involved in. The conversations that Tassie overhears while playing upstairs with the children during their meetings are circular, in turns angry and defensive, and probably very authentic, despite seeming stereotypical. The themes never change, and most of the white parents seem to feel that their adoption of the black and biracial children is under-appreciated by people who question their ability to raise children of color. Complaints about people's comments on the street, or the advice they get from well-meaning people that end up sounding like back-handed compliments, are all fodder for their insecurity and self-pity. They bring up issues of race and class, even within liberal communities, that people believe have long been subdued by inclusiveness and acceptance. Moore seems to be pointing out the naivete of people who believe we have entered a post-racial era, where issues of race have mostly been addressed.