Crossing Purgatory: A Novel

Crossing Purgatory: A Novel

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by Gary Schanbacher

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In the wake of family tragedy, Indiana farmer Thompson Grey takes to the Santa Fe Trail in a beautifully scripted, spare and powerful story of relationships, human frailties, and ultimately, redemption

In spring of 1858 Thompson Grey, a young farmer, travels to his father’s estate seeking funds to expand his holdings. Far overstaying his visit, he


In the wake of family tragedy, Indiana farmer Thompson Grey takes to the Santa Fe Trail in a beautifully scripted, spare and powerful story of relationships, human frailties, and ultimately, redemption

In spring of 1858 Thompson Grey, a young farmer, travels to his father’s estate seeking funds to expand his holdings. Far overstaying his visit, he returns home to find that his absence has contributed to a devastating family tragedy. Haunted by remorse, Thompson abandons his farm and begins a westward exile in the attempt to outpace his grief. Unwittingly, he finds himself at journey’s end in the one place where his strongest temptations are able to over take him and once again put him to the test. Set against the backdrop of the frontier during the years just preceding the Civil War, Crossing Purgatory tells a story of unprincipled ambition, guilt, and the price one man is willing to pay for atonement.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This striking tale, a literary western from Schanbacher (Migration Patterns), chronicles one momentous year in the life of a plainsman on the eve of the American Civil War. The young farmer, Thompson Grey, is stricken with grief and guilt after his wife, Rachel, and two sons, Matthew and Daniel, die from diphtheria while he’s away asking his wealthy planter father, Reverend Matthew Grey, for an advance on his inheritance. Leaving his Indiana homestead in the hopes that “he might outpace his grief,” he joins up in Kansas with Captain John Upperdine, who’s guiding a wagon train that includes the pregnant Hanna Light and her son, Joseph, whom Thompson befriends. He and the Lights elect to accept Upperdine’s invitation to stay a while at his Kansas ranch, also farmed by the colorful Benito Ibarra—a relation of Upperdine’s wife, Genoveva. The ranchers survive a ravenous plague of grasshoppers, Hanna gives birth to a daughter she names Destiny, and Thompson experiments with growing a new variety of wheat. They gut it through the harsh winter before Thompson finally comes to terms with his loss at the climax of Schanbacher’s visceral and triumphant saga of the Old West. Agent: Jennifer Carlson, the Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (June)
“Schanbacher writes beautifully, but not in a showy way. He builds up characters and landscape through simple, precise detail.”
Rocky Moutain News
“Schanbacher’s unflinching prose is lyrical; it lays bare the deepest of emotions of the human heart.”
William Haywood Henderson
“Crossing Purgatory is a beautiful, lyrical experience, memorable for its timeless evocation of human struggle at the fringes of civilization. Schanbacher effortlessly channels history while exploring conflicts of the heart that ring just as true today.”
From the Publisher
“Winner of the 2014 WWA Spur Award for Best Western Traditional Novel”
Library Journal
Having buried his wife and two sons, Thompson Grey, a born farmer, walks away from the rich soil of his Indiana holding in May 1858. Filled with grief and regret, he heads west. Though he can barely stand human company, he accepts work with Capt. John Upperdine's Santa Fe Trail wagon train. When anti-abolitionists kill two members of their party, Thompson again finds himself digging graves. By journey's end when he temporarily settles at Upperdine's New Mexico compound, Thompson still battles the numbness of grief but finds some ease working with scythe and plow. His labors help provide for the other settlers, some of them relatives of Upperdine's Hispanic wife. Eventually Thompson must decide whether to commit to desert life, replete with marauding bears, armies of grasshoppers, and much gun violence. VERDICT Schanbacher, whose short story collection, Migration Patterns, won the Colorado Book Award, has produced a deeply human portrait of a man battling for both soul and sanity. Comparing favorably with the fiction of Larry McMurtry, Willa Cather, and Elmer Kelton, this debut is both suspenseful and eloquent. Despite a few minor flaws (jarring plot elements in the final 30 pages and an open ending that seems a bit sudden and unfinished), Schanbacher's novel of the American West should appeal to a large segment of historical fiction readers.—Keddy Ann Outlaw, Houston

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Crossing Purgatory

By Gary Schanbacher

Pegasus Books LLC

Copyright © 2013 Gary Schanbacher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-9887-9


Thompson Grey quit his farm in Deep Woods, Indiana on the 20th of May in 1858. At first light after a sleepless night, he set out across his recently sown field, the tilled soil yielding beneath his weight. Dirt clung to his boots. Rich dirt, black and wet from rain. Holding him to his land. He felt its pull but resisted, pushed on. Once beyond the field and onto the road, he looked back the one time only. There, a trail of flattened corn shoots, slender and green and no larger than a baby's finger.

He arrived at the small township early morning and stood in front of Edwin Fletcher's door again to see if the constable might come out and confront him, but he would not. After a time, Thompson spat on the step and turned his back to Deep Woods, the drygoods store, blacksmith shed, livery, community storage barn, two churches, and twelve houses. At this hour, an ordinary day would bring the sights and sounds of awakening commerce: the report of hammer on anvil, the creak of a wagon, a scattering of people from the surrounding farms trickling into the mercantile. Not on this day. Shades were drawn, shop doors latched. The villagers had anticipated his passing. When he'd been gone half an hour, the shutter on Edwin Fletcher's front window inched open, and after another few minutes he stepped tentatively from his front stoop and squinted into the distance. He remained close by his entrance, as might a groundhog hug tight to its burrow until certain the fox had passed. And then, the bellows from the livery sent up a black column, the sound of two boys hollering broke the spell of silence, and the town of Deep Woods carried on with the business as usual.

Thompson Grey left the washboard road after six miles, cutting across country to the west. He had no destination in mind other than general direction. Westward, away from civilization. He carried a Kentucky rifle, a pouch of balls and caps, his powder, a water skin, and a rucksack containing a blanket, a small traveling Bible, cooking pot, and a tin cup. Around his waist a money belt cinched his wool jacket and protected two twenty-dollar gold eagles, three silver coins, and a few coppers. Tied to the belt were a gutting knife and a sack holding dried venison, a few stale biscuits, and a flint firestone. On his head, a felt slouch hat.

He walked through open farmland and the wooded hills of southern Indiana, walked with urgency, without rest, as if by exertion alone he might outpace his grief. He avoided marked roads where he could, having no wish for human contact and no need for trail mark or signpost. At dusk, he sat beside a black walnut tree, a windbreak, and ate a biscuit and a strip of venison, gnawing at the meat. He noticed the dirt lodged beneath his fingernails, embedded in his cuticles and in the creases of his knuckles. His dirt. From the last of the digging. Yesterday morning? Two days past? Three? Weariness bore down. His head slumped to his chest and, resting against the tree, he slept.

THE DREAM THAT HAD PLAGUED him these past days returned. Thompson stands at the brow of a hill overlooking a vast field of corn, endless row upon row stretching beyond the reach of vision, filling the entire valley. His valley. His corn. The stalks, broad-leafed and fully tasseled, grow tall during the day but at night they lie down with the animals, only to rise again with the sun. Thompson walks to his hill each day to survey his dominion and one morning discovers not corn but bones lying in the field. Dry bones, picked clean. Upon his arrival, they begin joining together, bone to bone, forming an army of skeletons that turn and march on him, a cacophony of rattling, the ground quaking beneath his feet. They beat drums, a thrumming pulse. He flees, but they pursue, calling to him in a language he does not understand but in a tone that clearly accuses, and in his heart Thompson knows they will never relent. Although for the moment he eludes them, he is certain the skeletons advance, he can hear the yowl of the wind through their ribs as they march.

HE WOKE UNSURE OF HIS whereabouts, dazed by fatigue and sorrow, the psalmist's lament in his ears. There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. Daybreak brought a low, gunmetal sky, a chill breeze, and intermittent drizzle. Thompson again walked hard, pushed his endurance, the arcing of a blurred sun his timepiece. He ate the last of his jerked meat, kept moving. He came to a road leading west and he followed it, all that day and the next, occasionally chancing upon a cabin or small homestead. Once he passed close by a man and three children, a boy and two girls, working the field. The man looked up and mopped his face with a rag and followed Thompson's progress until apparently convinced he would not stop and then he turned back to his hoe. Near sunset, he sighted smoke in the distance, several individual columns rising from the horizon and dissipating in the breeze, and he left the road for the cover of nearby woods to skirt the settlement. From a hillside, hidden in the shadow of trees, he paused above the tidy row of cabins. Several appeared newly constructed, a loose pile of scrap timber, a pitch pot smoldering. Nearing dusk, the glow from cooking fires blushed windows and seeped from beneath doors. People began making their way from the fields, here a man with six children following in step like ducklings, there two men leading mules by their harnesses. A pair of mongrels barked and nipped at one another and worried a rawhide strip between them.

Day faded early in the woods and, in unfamiliar land, Thompson sensed the ghost of memory stalking him, a chill presence descending like a mist that drove him from the hill overlook on into the gloaming. Past dark he rolled himself in his blanket and slept fitfully on the ground at the edge of a meadow. Once during the night he woke to the sound of a wolf far in the distance. A howl, a response? He thought he was done with sleep for the night, but fatigue overcame his churning mind and he drifted back into uneasy somnolence, floating, dim noises, a light breeze through new spring leaves, the screeching cry of a fox, or a baby, unable to distinguish dream world from real.

Thompson rose, stiff and weary, to a light rain. Tired, wet, but marching as if he were fleeing the advancing enemy. His stomach protested, empty save for a stale biscuit from his sack and fresh water from a clear running stream he'd waded. He sensed an unnamed adversary coming from the east so he continued his westward course at military pace long into the day. He passed one other township but encountered no one on the road. By late afternoon he entered unknown territory, country he'd not traveled before: limestone bluffs breaking the rolling hills, the land opening a bit, the woods patchy. As the sun neared the western horizon, he descended into the gully of a creek bed where a small stand of hickory grew up dark against the paling sky. He drank from the creek and refilled his water bag. The water tasted of leaves and bog. After surveying the gully, he stood in the lengthening shadow of a tree and pulled the hammer of his rifle to half-cock and placed the butt between his feet with the muzzle at his shoulder. He poured the charge, fit the ball and compressed the paper wadding behind it with his ramrod. He shouldered the rifle and set the hammer to full cock. He waited. Motionless, alert. A quarter of an hour passed, and then the muffled sound of movement through the damp leaves, a squirrel darting along the ground and up the hickory where Thompson had spotted the nest. It paused on a branch and Thompson sighted his musket, but the squirrel sensed something, pending danger, the slight movement of the muzzle, and scurried to the far side of the tree where it scolded him with a repetitive, sharp chatter. Thompson picked a hickory nut from the ground and tossed it behind the tree and readied himself. The squirrel jumped from the sound back to Thompson's side of the tree, where the musket ball waited. Thompson's shot struck bark a fraction of an inch beneath the squirrel, killing by concussion without mutilating the meat.

Thompson pulled the skin from the squirrel and gutted the carcass. As dusk came on the rain eased, allowing him to build a small fire using a little powder and some branch shavings as tinder. He roasted the squirrel over the banked embers, and pulling meat from bone he ate greedily but without pleasure, ate because his fate was to live and life required nourishment.

THE FOLLOWING DAYS TOOK ON a sameness, rain continuing on and off, dimming clouds, early darkness, starless nights, the moon a gauzy hint, the going slowed by fatigue and by a road turned to mire, brown sludge puddling the low areas, food gone, game scarce. Thompson, bow-shouldered, mud-splattered, hair matted and tangled like a thicket of scrub brush, seemed more a feature of the landscape than a person moving through it. The constantly overcast skies deprived him of a clear view of the sun and the stars by which to guide, so he no longer was sure of his course, although he judged it westward still. He despaired time lost to foraging and rest, yet had not an inkling of his destination, a wanderer rather than a pilgrim. He felt compelled to move, but the why and where of it escaped him.

He must have appeared an ominous presence to the father and young girl he stumbled upon late one evening as he approached the cabin he'd seen from the rise. The girl held a slop bucket beside a small split rail pen holding four swine. The man stepped in front of the girl and loosely gripped the haft of a pitchfork. He was large and rawboned, wore a broad rimmed hat from which protruded shocks of hair the color of straw. He seemed to Thompson neither cordial nor threatening, but cautious perhaps. Thompson leaned his rifle against the fence post and stepped away from it.

"Hello. I don't wish to disturb your work. I thought only to fill my bag at the well. I've been on the road a spell." Thompson removed his water skin from around his neck and pointed it in the direction of the well. The little girl peeked from behind her father. Barefoot, she wore a calico dress checkered in blue and white. The man seemed to take Thompson's measure and then spoke.

"You're welcome to what water you can carry. Name's Madison. James Madison." He removed his hat and scratched his head. "No relation, but it's a topic of much merriment with folks around here."

"Thompson Grey. Obliged."

Thompson left his rifle at the post and walked to the well and filled his bag. Then, almost as an afterthought, "Where might 'around here' be? I come from Deep Woods and am headed west."

"Deep Woods?"


"If west is your only destination you are on course," Madison answered. "A ways back you crossed over into Illinois."

"Again, I'm obliged to you." Thompson nodded to Madison, and Madison raised a hand to stop him.

"It's tight what with the winter stores getting low, but I'd be pleased to offer a little something to eat and a warm place by the fire."

Thompson considered his waterlogged chill and gnawing hunger. "I'm not fit for the table. But, some bread if you have it to spare, and a rest in the hay bin."

"As you wish," Madison answered and led the girl to the cabin. As the door opened, an older boy, almost a man, came from around back of the cabin wielding a flintlock musket and followed the two inside. As Thompson waited, he looked over what he could see of the farm and judged Madison to have achieved a measure of success. The log house was well constructed, the plank door tight in its frame, the stone chimney true, a window with glass panes. Cornfields stretched out behind the cabin in sufficient acreage that Thompson knew Madison must have several other children behind the door. The swine in the pen were heavy and of good color. Chickens pecked in the yard. Two milk cows grazed about their tether pins in a pasture off to Thompson's right, and a pair of mules shuffled in the lean-to next to the pig pen. A good life, Thompson thought. A good life. Not unlike his own, before.

THOMPSON HAD BEEN PROUD OF his quarter section in Indiana, the log cabin and the growing numbers of livestock, cultivated fields, and woodlands for lumbering. But his land paled in comparison to his father's estate, the two-story frame house with the front porch looking out over fields planted in tobacco and corn, sheep grazing on pastured hills, the forests beyond. And the outbuildings: kitchen attached to the main house by a covered walkway; the tenant shacks, base but tidily arranged in two rows and freshly whitewashed; the smokehouse; the tobacco barn and curing room.

Thompson believed himself born to farm and loved the comforting rhythm: plowing and sowing in spring, clearing land and culling trees during summer heat and winter pause, harvesting in fall, butchering after the first hard frost. He gave thanks for what he had in Indiana, what he had built for Rachel and the boys. But he dreamed of more and bitterly resented the curse of the second son. His father had told him he'd not see his future generations fall from comfort into poverty because of holdings divided and divided again. His brother Jacob would inherit the estate and Thompson despaired of ever being able to increase his own acreage. So, when the opportunity arose, he acted.

He'd been turning the soil early that spring when Cyrus Brawley rode over on his mule. Cyrus owned the farm adjacent to his own. "Giving it up," Cyrus told Thompson. They stood in Thompson's field. Cyrus bent and took a clot of dirt in his hand and crumbled it, sifting it through his fingers.

"They say soil in Illinois is black and rich." Cyrus looked to the woods bordering Thompson's five-acre plot. "And without these goddamned stumps to clear."

Thompson knew the Brawley farm. Yielded fair, would do better with his touch. Good sections of bottomland, acres of hardwood Brawley found excuse not to log.

"How much?" Thompson asked.

"A dollar and twenty an acre, I'll let it go. Looking to sell it all of a piece."

The property would double the size of his farm, if only he had the funds. He would request a loan from his father.


Madison stood holding out a tin plate and a wool blanket, for how long Thompson had not a clue.

"Thank you." Thompson accepted the offerings.

"This should keep the chill off and the belly satisfied for a while," Madison said, and with a nod withdrew to the cabin. Thompson nested into the hay bin and shoveled food into his mouth with the wooden spoon Madison had provided. The plate held a generous slab of cornbread and thick gravy, milk and flour mixed with bits of fatback fried in a skillet. When he had sopped the last of the gravy with the cornbread and blotted the soggy crumbs with his finger, he wrapped himself in the blanket, burrowed more deeply into the hay, pulled his hat low, and slept uneasily with his dreams.

RACHEL AT HER VANITIES. THAT last evening, before he left to call on his father, Matthew in his crib and Daniel on his mat, she untied the string that bound her hair in its tight bun. Days, she kept it up, out of the way while at chores, but at night she let it down and brushed it each evening. A raven's sheen. An open, innocent face. Full breasts, firm despite three pregnancies in four years, the first ended prematurely to bleeding. She hummed a tune as she combed, and smiled over at him. He reached to stroke her hair, reached for the warmth of his wife.

SOMETHING WOKE HIM. A SOUND, familiar but out of setting for the wilderness. Music. The tune Rachel had been humming in his dream. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. He'd slept but little, judging by the hang of the moon in a night sky now swept free of clouds and filled with cold pricks of light. He stood wrapped in the blanket and listened. Still dreaming? There, from the cabin. Thompson retrieved the tin plate and eased to the window and peered inside. A woman, fair-complexioned and slim-figured, sat by the fire bracing a dulcimer on her lap, working chords with one hand while bowing with the other. Madison sat at a rough-hewn table with two older boys while two girls waltzed a toddler in a tight circle about the room. Madison and his wife sang quietly.

Thompson removed the blanket, folded it, placed it beside the door, and set the plate on the blanket. He backed from the porch and gathered his belongings and turned for the road and walked until the moon began to set, and then he ascended a slope into the woods and when he reached a leveling he stopped and built a small fire. As the fire glowed he lost his night vision and his world constricted, limited to the flickering reach of the flames. But he heard the animals, an owl high in a near tree, a deer picking through the deadfall, something foraging nearby, a raccoon perhaps. Thompson pulled his blanket around his shoulders, stared into the red glow of the coals, felt again solitude seeping into his bones with the cold night air, and, in the hours that sleep refused to come, tried unsuccessfully to wean from his memory his past life, a life forfeited by his transgressions, a life traded for this new, unfamiliar purgatory.


Excerpted from Crossing Purgatory by Gary Schanbacher. Copyright © 2013 Gary Schanbacher. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gary Schanbacher’s debut short story collection, Migration Patterns, received a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for distinguished first works of fiction and won the Colorado Book Award, the High Plains First Book Award, and the Eric Hoffer General Fiction Award. Schanbacher lives just outside Denver, Colorado.

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Crossing Purgatory: A Novel 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 4 months ago
I was deeply engaged immediately, and lived every moment of the harrowing experiences and short-lived joys of the finely-drawn characters.