Moon’s Crossing by Barbara Croft
Rating: •• (Mildly Recommended)
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Barbara Croft’s debut novel, Moon’s Crossing, grew out of one of her short stories. Some of that growth was healthy, lyrical, captivating; some of the growth was spotty, confusing and unnecessary. Croft spins together vignettes of the life of Jim Moon, from the Civil War, his marriage in Iowa, the fixation he had on the World’s Columbian Exposition, and his death in New York. From these snippets, some of which last for just a paragraph, a reader comes to something of an understanding of Moon’s life. Here’s an excerpt (p;. 40-45):
The girl glanced around the room. Not the bureau, not the carpetbag—too obvious. If and when he came back, the mick would paw through everything. Under the rug, then, in the flue. No. There. Perfect. Tuck it away, a bill or two at a time, in between the pages. The last place the cop would be likely to look.
She found a scarlet ribbon and tied it around her neck. Jewelry was long gone, even the star-shaped garnet pin, pawned for a drink or two, and better that way, Moon had told her, because the star was unlucky.
She had protested, arguing on the street. It's all I've got that belonged to my mother. Moon pried it out other hand.
The girl heard the policeman on the stairs, his heavy brogans, the day stick clicking along the balusters. She heard him stop to rest on the fourth-floor landing. Too much brisket and beer. He climbed again: a step and a rest, a step and a rest.
She twisted her hair and piled it on top other head, then took it down and rearranged it into a modest chignon bunched at the nape other neck. She studied herself in the mirror, turning her face to the left and then to the right. The chignon was less flippant, more sedate, the kind of look that would keep the policeman guessing. She'd gotten off on the wrong foot with the man, but there was no use burning bridges. She pinched her cheeks to give them a rosy color.
Sure, win him back. Tell him stories. Keep him there and dole it out a little bit at a time. Wait. Wait, at least until she knew the name of the game. With Moon gone, there was nobody she could trust.
Flirt a little and see where it went. Old Mr. Moon wouldn't mind. Could be some kind of reward. If the cop could be trusted, she might just show him the devil's book and get him to read a bit. Find out who her mother was, once and for all.
The sledgehammer proved effective against the stone, but Caroline lacked the strength to lift it more than three or four times, and Win refused to participate in the destruction. Consequently, the only damage done was a sizable crater she had managed to bash in the base of the limestone pulpit and another one dead center in the Book of Life.
"Sweetheart," Win said cautiously, "why don't you take a rest."
Caroline wiped her brow and leaned her hammer against the stone. "I am kind of wore out," she said.
They sat on the back porch steps and watched the sun go down over Mother Maythorpe's garden. The tomato vines were heavy with fruit. The sweet corn was coming on.
"Pastor Rayburn thinks I should set up my father's stone in the churchyard," Winslow said.
"At the Open Bible?"
Win nodded. "He says I got a pulpit, I might as well be a preacher."
Win picked up a stick and began to whittle. "I don't know what I'd say, though."
Caroline sighed. "Well, that ought to tell you something. You are just about as silent as the tomb." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "I don't mean that mean."
Sometimes, when no one was looking, Win drifted away from his work—stacking the hymnals, cutting the grass in the churchyard—and took the pastor's place behind the pulpit. There, looking out over the dimly lit sanctuary, he preached, silently, to a small but enraptured imaginary flock. His text was always the same—sin and redemption, the great eternal core of love and art—and though he knew next to nothing about either subject, his invisible congregation would gaze up from the pews in admiration.
"Pastor says for me just to tell the truth," Win said.
"Pastor says, 'A word to the wise is sufficient."'
Moon tried homesteading, gold mining. He worked as a gandy dancer for the railroad. And every place he went he saw a shadowy piece of the old vision, but never again the vision whole and solid. He joined a threshing crew, hard work from dawn to dusk and broken only by dinnertime, which was fried chicken and biscuits and gravy and string beans and hominy and bread-and-butter pickles and ripe tomatoes and apple pie—Moon liked pie—and cups of strong, hot coffee with lots of sugar. He was still young then—twenty-eight, twenty-nine. The men ate outside at a long deal table in a grove of cottonwood trees, shoveling in the food and flirting hopelessly with the shy Bohemian hired girls.
Moon became a store clerk, which he didn't much like, a teamster, which he did. He understood horses, knew their restlessness and their will. Moon was in his prime then, tan, strong as a bull calf, in the pursuit of happiness, he said, if anyone ever asked his business.
Miraculously, he fell in love, or thought he had, and quit drinking for a month or so. This was in Kansas, and Moon was thirty-four. She was a dressmaker, pretty but prim, better educated than he was, sharp and sure of herself. Moon tried to meet her expectations. But after a summer of courting in the parlor, the girl left him for a young minister.
Moon drifted, followed the Mississippi down to New Orleans, glided east. The proud new Athens, for which the rebel boys had given their lives, was gone, but Moon still saw the ghost of it everywhere, like the ring a glass of whiskey leaves on a table.
He headed west again, and the land sustained him. The sumac going ruby red along the right-of-ways, the splashes of purple among the grasses, the bitter lemon yellow, the sift of white. The way the sun washed over a meadow, mornings. The smell of clover, the sweetgrass smell.
Caroline didn't have much patience for preaching. Imitation pearls before genuine swine. But for Win the stone had suggested possibiities.
"Pastor's right. It's a pulpit," he said.
"It's a tombstone."
"On the surface."
"That's what I'm talking about."
Caroline stood up and went inside to start supper.
"That stone's a message," Win said, trailing after her. "A kind of a dare. My father's trying to tell me something."
In the kitchen she tied on a white cotton apron and stoked up the stove. "Supper in forty minutes," she said. "You want biscuits or corn dodgers?"
"I don't care," he said.
"Well, don't sulk."
Win sat down at the kitchen table and took an apple from the fruit bowl. "I think I am fixing to set that stone up down in the churchyard," he said.
Caroline glanced up from the stove. "No, you are not neither."
"Oh, but I am." Win's enthusiasm lifted him to his feet. "And I'm going to preach, too. Every Sunday, right after regular services."
"Win," she said, "people don't want to be sermonized all day long. Besides, what training have you had? Other than going to all those boring Chautauquas?"
"Pastor says to listen to my heart. And tell the truth, he says. That's the main thing. And anyhow, I know something about—"
"What? Being a crazy man's son?"
Caroline measured two cups of flour and dumped them into a bowl. "You ought to forget about that old loony."
"Now, wait just a minute."
"Win, he never came home" She added a pinch of salt, two level teaspoons of baking powder. "Just kept right on keeping on. Reach me the milk."
She cut in some lard and added a scant cup of buttermilk. "He ended up in New York City," she said. She punished the dough with a wooden spoon. "I rest my case."
Moon was a pick-and-shovel man, a cook, a lumberjack; he was a bargeman on the rivers; he was a tramp. There were other women, less particular. Moon compared them all to an ideal beauty in his mind and found them wanting. He began to stoop a little, took up smoking, let his hair grow long. A wry sort of melancholy set in. Mostly it was impatience, longing that had festered like a wound. Hard work could usually hold it at bay.
He read a lot, knew things now—politics, history, art. His writing improved, his drawing. But he could still be fooled by a clever man or a pretty girl. He still wanted something he couldn't define. In the daylight, in the world of work, the purpose of his life seemed clear. But at night, riding the freight cars, walking the roads, the horror of the war and the vision he had of America often combined in curious patterns, and Moon couldn't tell whether he was chased, driven, or led.
And then in the fall of 1892 Moon was passing back through Iowa and met Miss Mac Eliza Stanton Greentree, who owned a house of sorts and a scruffy farm her father had left her. She was twenty-five years old, and Moon was forty-six.
The policeman had lifted an apple for the girl from a fruitmonger and sat on the bed in the hotel, watching her eat.
"I wasn't sure you'd come back," she said.
She'd fixed her hair while he was gone, put on a little powder.
"Maybe I enjoy your company."
Her lips curled back, revealing small, dingy teeth, the canines very sharp and perfectly shaped.
"Tell me the truth about this old man.”
The girl seemed more relaxed. "He come from Iowa," she told him. "I don't know the town."
The policeman rummaged through the carpetbag. "Leave any valuables?"
"Money, jewelry, stocks and bonds?"
The Greentree place was a sod house, hunched against the wind. Originally there were two small rooms tunneled into a hillside, a sod roof supported by eight thick stripped cottonwood beams. But over the years oddly shaped rooms had been added—a second, a third bedroom, a harness room, a lean-to summer kitchen, slapped together with rough pine—so that by the time Jim Moon arrived, the house spread out from the hill like a maze. Moon and Mae were married in what she liked to call the parlor on a chilly Sunday afternoon with only the preacher from town and a neighbor lady, Mrs. Ross, and her husband, Henry, in attendance. The ceremony was brief but binding. Afterwards, to celebrate, Ross uncorked a large, dubious jug of homemade cider.
Cold Water seeping in through the Walls. Rain ever day. They say early frost. I don't sleep good—Dreams come at me. Money troubles. Mac. Out in the Feedlot we sink to our knees & cannot leave the house but the Earth wants to suck us down. Hands stiff with the Rheumatism & no relief but the Bottle.
I despair of making a go of farming & my Wife is away too good for me I fear. So young. I have waited too long perhaps & have taken on too many burrs.
Meanwhile I read in a book of Mr. Whitman's Poems which was give to me by a Woman over Town & am strongly moved.
Croft is a talented writer, and readers who are interested in this particular time in American history will find Moon’s Crossing fascinating. Many readers will find her style annoying and will face frustration when ten pages of perfect writing are followed by ten pages of unnecessary sub-plot. Sometimes a short story should remain as it is. For me, the good pages were worth the effort.
Steve Hopkins, August 22, 2003
ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the September 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Moon's Crossing.htm
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