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Standing at the Crossroads

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  • Posted January 28, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Haunting, visual, powerful tale

    His name is not Ishmael, but he is a witness, narrator of Charles Davis' novel, Standing at the Crossroads. The story begins with man, woman and child, in Africa, surrounded by people who believe in God and guns. It ends soon after, when the past of their meeting, rescue and flight has been told, when the world, large and small, receives and perceives the telling. And therein lies a beautiful journey, the scenery of African Paradise, and the story of what we tell; how we make sense of things; why and where we belong.

    Kate is white, opinionated, idealistic, determined to see justice done. The narrator is black, a reader and carrier of books, a teller of stories that peel back layers of truth. He and Kate argue over whether violence is senseless, or whether the list of villages pillaged and burned is unpredictable. They wander the African desert, fleeing soldiers, hiding from helicopters-she seeking a town where her tale might change the world, and he just seeking to be true to his vision of the world. Each knows different truths and tells them different ways. But in the end, relationship is what lasts, the only known and knowable-though even that can be colored in different tones.

    The story is told through the eyes of an African man. His language is built on a foundation of classical books; his metaphors come from the land and from fiction; his strength from carrying books; wisdom not only from reading but from telling; he sees an ocean in the desert's waves and no God but that of stories.

    Purpose comes from Kate, who is sure the world will stop injustice when it sees what's going on. Ishmael, ever-pragmatic, asks if we don't already know and keep our eyes turned away, as if that's the only way we can live with ourselves. Kate wants answers. Ishmael wants story. Kate wants action. Ishmael's just watching the path. Meanwhile the plains spread truth, shifting and thin, while mountain climbs reveal how far we've come.

    Standing at the Crossroads is a mountain climb of a story, not one of Ishmael's disparaged airport novels of "flat" simplicity. It's a Paradise lost of human endeavor writ small in the lives of the few. It's a feast of words in famine and fresh water in the desert of oft-repeated news. And it's beautifully told. There's an "eternal present" in books where all the characters continue their lives through story; Charles Davis' characters deserve to be heard and to live on in his words.

    Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, the Permanent Press, in exchange for an honest review.

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