Finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction
Chosen as a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Kansas City Star, Financial Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Real Simple
Twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a gentleman farmer, has come to a university town as a student. When she takes a job as a part-time nanny for a mysterious and glamorous family, she finds herself drawn deeper into their world and forever changed. Told through the eyes of this memorable narrator, A Gate at the Stairs is a piercing novel of race, class, love, and war in America.
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The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead of flying south, instead of already having flown south, they were huddled in people’s yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth. I was looking for a job. I was a student and needed babysitting work, and so I would walk from interview to interview in these attractive but wintry neighborhoods, the eerie multitudes of robins pecking at the frozen ground, dun-gray and stricken—though what bird in the best of circumstances does not look a little stricken—until at last, late in my search, at the end of a week, startlingly, the birds had disappeared. I did not want to think about what had happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression—of politeness, a false promise of delicacy—for in fact I wondered about them all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes for miles down along the Illinois state line.
I was looking in December for work that would begin at the start of the January term. I’d finished my exams and was answering ads from the student job board, ones for “childcare provider.” I liked children—I did!—or rather, I liked them OK. They were sometimes interesting. I admired their stamina and candor. And I was good with them in that I could make funny faces at the babies and with the older children teach them card tricks and speak in the theatrically sarcastic tones that disarmed and enthralled them. But I was not especially skilled at minding children for long spells; I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother. After I spent too much time playing their games, my mind grew peckish and longed to lose itself in some book I had in my backpack. I was ever hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps.
I had come from Dellacrosse Central, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest,” as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe I’d read of in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories—no experience—of the outside world. Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery—twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.
The ancient cave, of course, had produced a mystic; my childhood had produced only me.
In the corridors students argued over Bach, Beck, Balkanization, bacterial warfare. Kids said things to me like “You’re from the country. Is it true that if you eat a bear’s liver you’ll die?” They asked, “Ever know someone who did you-know-what with a cow?” Or “Is it an actual fact that pigs won’t eat bananas?” What I did know was that a goat will not really consume a tin can: a goat just liked to lick the paste on the label. But no one ever asked me that.
From our perspective that semester, the events of September—we did not yet call them 9/11—seemed both near and far. Marching poli-sci majors chanted on the quads and the pedestrian malls, “The chickens have come home to roost! The chickens have come home to roost!” When I could contemplate them at all—the chickens, the roosting—it was as if in a craning crowd, through glass, the way I knew (from Art History) people stared at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre: La Gioconda! its very name like a snake, its sly, tight smile encased at a distance but studied for portentous flickers. It was, like September itself, a cat’s mouth full of canaries. My roommate, Murph—a nose-pierced, hinky-toothed blonde from Dubuque, who used black soap and black dental floss and whose quick opinions were impressively harsh (she pronounced Dubuque “Du-ba-cue”) and who once terrified her English teachers by saying the character she admired most in all of literature was Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood—had met her boyfriend on September tenth and when she woke up at his place, she’d phoned me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring. “I know, I know,” she said, her voice shrugging into the phone. “It was a terrible price to pay for love, but it had to be done.”
I raised my voice to a mock shout. “You sick slut! People were killed. All you think about is your own pleasure.” Then we fell into a kind of hysteria—frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in women over thirty.
“Well,” I sighed, realizing I might not be seeing her all that much from then on in, “I hope there’s just hanky—no panky.”
“Nah,” she said. “With panky there’s always tears, and it ruins the hanky.” I would miss her.
Though the movie theaters closed for two nights, and for a week even our yoga teacher put up an American flag and sat in front of it, in a lotus position, eyes closed, saying, “Let us now breathe deeply in honor of our great country” (I looked around frantically, never getting the breathing right), mostly our conversations slid back shockingly, resiliently, to other topics: backup singers for Aretha Franklin, or which Korean-owned restaurant had the best Chinese food. Before I’d come to Troy, I had never had Chinese food. But now, two blocks from my apartment, next to a shoe repair shop, was a place called the Peking Café where I went as often as I could for the Buddha’s Delight. At the cash register small boxes of broken fortune cookies were sold at discount. “Only cookie broken,” promised the sign, “not fortune.” I vowed to buy a box one day to see what guidance—obscure or mystical or mercenary but Confucian!—might be had in bulk. Meanwhile, I collected them singly, one per every cookie that came at the end atop my check, briskly, efficiently, before I’d even finished eating. Perhaps I ate too slowly. I’d grown up on Friday fish fries and green beans in butter (for years, my mother had told me, mar- garine, considered a foreign food, could be purchased only across state lines, at “oleo” stands hastily erected along the highway—park here for parkay read the signs—just past the Illinois governor’s welcome billboard, farmers muttering that only Jews bought there). And so now these odd Chinese vegetables—fungal and gnomic in their brown sauce—had the power for me of an adventure or a rite, a statement to be savored. Back in Dellacrosse the dining was divided into “Casual,” which meant you ate it standing up or took it away, and the high end, which was called “Sit-Down Dining.” At the Wie Haus Family Restaurant, where we went for sit-down, the seats were red leatherette and the walls were gemütlichkeit and paneled, decorated with framed deep kitsch, wide-eyed shepherdesses and jesters. The breakfast menus read “Guten Morgen.” Sauces were called “gravy.” And the dinner menu featured cheese curd meatloaf and steak “cooked to your likeness.” On Fridays there were fish fries or boils for which they served “lawyers” (burbot or eelpout), so-called because their hearts were in their butts. (They were fished from the local lake where all the picnic spots had trash cans that read no fish guts.) On Sundays there was not only marshmallow and maraschino cherry salad and something called “Grandma Jell-O,” but “prime rib with au jus,” a precise knowledge of French—or English or even food coloring—not being the restaurant’s strong point. A la carte meant soup or salad; dinner meant soup and salad. The Roquefort on the salad was called by the waitstaff “Rockford dressing.” The house wine—red, white, or pink—all bore the requisite bouquet of rose, soap, and graphite, a whiff of hay, a hint of hooterville, though the menu remained mute about all this, sticking to straightforward declarations of hue. Light ale and dunkel were served. For dessert there was usually a gluckschmerz pie, with the fluffy look and heft of a small snowbank. After any meal, sleepiness ensued.
Now, however, away and on my own, seduced and salted by brown sauce, I felt myself thinning and alive. The Asian owners let me linger over my books and stay as long as I wanted to: “Take your tie! No lush!” they said kindly as they sprayed the neighboring tables with disinfectant. I ate mango and papaya and nudged the stringy parts out of my teeth with a cinnamon toothpick. I had one elegantly folded cookie—a short paper nerve baked in an ear. I had a handleless cup of hot, stale tea, poured and reheated from a pail stored in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator.
I would tug the paper slip from the stiff clutches of the cookie and save it for a bookmark. All my books had fortunes protruding like tiny tails from their pages. You are the crispy noodle in the salad of life. You are the master of your own destiny. Murph had always added the phrase “in bed” to any fortune cookie fortune, so in my mind I read them that way, too: You are the master of your own destiny. In bed. Well, that was true. Debt is a seductive liar. In bed. Or the less-well-translated Your fate will blossom like a bloom.
Or the sly, wise guy: A refreshing change is in your future.
Sometimes, as a better joke, I added though NOT in bed.
You will soon make money. Or: Wealth is a wise woman’s man.
Though NOT in bed.
And so I needed a job. I had donated my plasma several times for cash, but the last time I had tried the clinic had turned me away, saying my plasma was cloudy from my having eaten cheese the night before. Cloudy Plasma! I would be the bass guitarist! It was so hard not to eat cheese! Even the whipped and spreadable kind we derisively called “cram cheese” (because it could be used for sealing windows and caulking tile) had a certain soothing allure. I looked daily at the employment listings. Childcare was in demand: I turned in my final papers and answered the ads.
One forty-ish pregnant woman after another hung up my coat, sat me in her living room, then waddled out to the kitchen, got my tea, and waddled back in, clutching her back, slopping tea onto the saucer, and asking me questions. “What would you do if our little baby started crying and wouldn’t stop?” “Are you available evenings?” “What do you think of as a useful educational activity for a small child?” I had no idea. I had never seen so many pregnant women in such a short period of time—five in all. It alarmed me. They did not look radiant. They looked reddened with high blood pressure and frightened. “I would put him in a stroller and take him for a walk,” I said. I knew my own mother had never asked such questions of anyone. “Dolly,” she said to me once, “as long as the place was moderately fire resistant, I’d deposit you anywhere.”
“Moderately?” I queried. She rarely called me by my name, Tassie. She called me Doll, Dolly, Dollylah, or Tassalah.
“I wasn’t going to worry and interfere with you.” She was the only Jewish woman I’d ever known who felt like that. But she was a Jewish woman married to a Lutheran farmer named Bo and perhaps because of that had the same indifferent reserve the mothers of my friends had. Halfway through my childhood I came to guess that she was practically blind as well. It was the only explanation for the thick glasses she failed often even to find. Or for the kaleidoscope of blood vessels burst, petunia-like, in her eyes, scarlet blasting into the white from mere eyestrain, or a careless swipe with her hand. It explained the strange way she never quite looked at me when we were speaking, staring at a table or down at a tile of a floor, as if halfheartedly plotting its disinfection while my scarcely controlled rage flew from my mouth in sentences I hoped would be, perhaps not then but perhaps later, like knives to her brain.
“Will you be in town for Christmas break?” the mothers asked.
I sipped at the tea. “No, I’m going home. But I will be back in January.”
“When in January?”
I gave them my references and a written summary of my experience. My experience was not all that much—just the Pitskys and the Schultzes back home. But as experience, too, I had once, as part of a class project on human reproduction, carried around for an entire week a sack of flour the exact weight and feel of an infant. I’d swaddled it and cuddled it and placed it in safe, cushioned places for naps, but once, when no one was looking, I stuffed it in my backpack with a lot of sharp pens, and it got stabbed. My books, powdery white the rest of the term, became a joke in the class. I left this out of my résumé, however.
But the rest I’d typed up. To gild the lily-livered, as my dad sometimes said, I was wearing what the department stores called “a career jacket,” and perhaps the women liked the professionalism of that. They were professionals themselves. Two were lawyers, one was a journalist, one was a doctor, one a high school teacher. Where were the husbands? “Oh, at work,” the women all said vaguely. All except the journalist, who said, “Good question!”
The last house was a gray stucco prairie house with a chimney cloaked in dead ivy. I had passed the house earlier in the week—it was on a corner lot and I’d seen so many birds there. Now there was just a flat expanse of white. Around the whiteness was a low wood Qual Line fence, and when I pushed open its gate it slipped a little; one of its hinges was loose and missing a nail. I had to lift the gate to relatch it. This maneuver, one I’d performed any number of times in my life, gave me a certain satisfaction—of tidiness, of restoration, of magic me!—when in fact it should have communicated itself as something else: someone’s ill-disguised decrepitude, items not cared for properly but fixed repeatedly in a make-do fashion, needful things having gotten away from their caregiver. Soon the entire gate would have to be held together with a bungee cord, the way my father once fixed a door in our barn.
Two slate steps led, in an odd mismatch of rock, downward to a flagstone walk, all of which, as well as the grass, wore a light dusting of snow—I laid the first footprints of the day; perhaps the front door was seldom used. Some desiccated mums were still in pots on the porch. Ice frosted the crisp heads of the flowers. Leaning against the house were a shovel and a rake, and shoved into the corner two phone books still in shrink-wrap.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of A Gate at the Stairs, the powerful, poignant, and laugh-out-loud story of a young woman's coming of age in the Midwest in the unsettling aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and America's buildup to war.
1. In addition to her sense of humor and intelligence, what are Tassie's strengths as a narrator? How does what she describes as “an unseemly collection of jostling former selves” (p. 63) affect the narrative and contribute to the appeal of her tale?
2. In the farming community where Tassie grew up, her father “seemed a vaguely contemptuous character. . . . His idiosyncrasies appeared to others to go beyond issues of social authenticity and got into questions of God and man and existence” (p. 19). Does the family, either intentionally or inadvertently, perpetuate their standing as outsiders? How does Moore use what ordinarily might be seen as clichés and stereotypes to create believable and sympathetic portraits of both the locals and the Keltjin family?
3. How does the initial meeting between Tassie and Sarah (pp. 10-24) create a real, if hesitant, connection between them? What aspects of their personalities come out in their conversation? To what extent are their impressions of each other influenced by their personal needs, both practical and psychological?
4. Are Sarah's ill-chosen comments at the meetings with Amber (p. 32) and Bonnie (pp. 89-90, p. 93) the result of the natural awkwardness between a birth mother and a potential adoptive mother or do they reveal deeper insecurities in Sarah? Does the adoption process inevitably involve a certain amount of willful deception, unenforceable promises (p. 87), and a “ceremony of approval . . . [that is] as with all charades. . . . wanly ebullient, necessary, and thin” (p. 95)?
5. What is the significance of Tassie's first impression of Edward-“one could see it was his habit to almost imperceptibly dominate and insult”-and her realization that “[d]espite everything, [Sarah] was in love with him” (p. 91)? Does Edward's behavior at dinner and the “small conspiracy” he and Tassie establish (pp. 112-114) offer a more sympathetic (or at least more understandable) view of him? Are there other passages in the novel that bring out the contradictions between his outward behavior and his private thoughts?
6. Does A Gate at the Stairs accurately reflect the persistence of racism in America? What do the comments and encounters sprinkled throughout in the novel (pp. 80, 112, 151, 167, 229) show about the various forms racism takes in our society?
7. Do you agree with Sarah's statement, “Racial blindness-now there's a very white idea” (p. 86)? What do the discussions in Sarah's support group (pp. 154-57; 186-90; 194-97) reveal about the different perceptions of reality held by African-Americans and white liberals? What role do class, wealth, and professional status play in opinions expressed by various members of the group? In this context, what is the import of Tassie's description of Mary-Emma's affection for Reynaldo: “the colorblindness of small children is a myth; she noticed difference and sameness, with almost equal interest; there was no 'Dilemma of Difference' as my alliteration-loving professors occasionally put it” (p. 169)?
8. How would you characterize the comments about religion throughout the novel (pp. 41, 108, 129)? What is the significance of the fact that Tassie's mother is Jewish, a woman of “indeterminate ethnicity” in a churchgoing community? Why are Roberta Marshall and Sarah so cavalier about Bonnie's insistence that her child be raised as a Catholic (p. 87)? How do Reynaldo's revelations about his activities and beliefs (pp. 204-8) fit into Tassie's view of God and religion in general? On page 296, Tassie offers a thoughtful explanation of the purpose of religion in people's lives. Are there other lessons about the meaning of religion or faith to be found in the novel?
9. The title of the book comes from a ballad Tassie writes with her roommate (p. 219-20). What does music-playing the bass and singing to Mary-Emma-represent to Tassie? How does it connect her to her own family and to Mary-Emma?
10. Does the novel prepare you for Sarah's dreadful confession (pp. 232-242)? What particular incidents or conversations foreshadow the revelations? How do Sarah's “conventional” beliefs about men and women affect the couple's behavior during and after the tragedy (pp. 240, 244)? Was their decision to move and start anew the best solution under the circumstances? Do the reasons Sarah gives for remaining with Edward make emotional sense? If they had been able to keep their secret hidden, would they have been able to create a happy future with Mary-Emma?
11. Nannies and other household help often grasp things families don't realize about themselves. Is Tassie an objective chronicler of life in the Brink-Thornwood household? What biases does she bring to her observations? How do her perceptions and opinions change over the course of the novel? In what ways does her growing attachment to Mary-Emma and her relationship with Sarah account for these changes? In what ways are they attributable to the developments in her personal life?
12. How do the vignettes of Tassie's visits home and her life in Troy play off one another? What do Tassie's conversations with her family bring out about the ambivalence she (and many college students) experience? Why does Tassie fail to recognize the depth of Robert's pain and confusion? Is Robert's decision to join the army given the attention it deserves by the rest of the family?
13. Does the Midwestern setting of the novel offer a distinctive perspective on September 11, 2001, and the mood of the country? How were the events experienced in other parts of America-for example, in the cities directly affected by the terrorist attacks?
14. Lorrie Moore has been widely praised for her affecting depictions of human vulnerability and her dark humor. How does Moore integrate clever one-liners, puns, and wordplay into the serious themes she is exploring? What role does humor play in exposing the thoughts, feelings, and fears the characters are unwilling or unable to express? Does it heighten the emotional force of the novel or diminish it?
15. “I had also learned that in literature-perhaps as in life-one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself” (p. 263-64]. How does this quotation apply to your reading of A Gate at the Stairs?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)