A Gate at the Stairs

Call me Ishmael. This sentence is forever part of my high-school memories. Mrs. Masterson spent at least a week (or so it felt) teaching us the importance of Herman Melville’s opening sentence from his novel Moby-Dick. I was catapulted back to 10th grade when I read the opening sentence of A Gate at the Stairs, “The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard.” From this point on, a general sense of foreboding came over me as I read on and began to know the book’s lead character, Tassie Keltjin. I found Moore’s weaving together of the story of the stranded and doomed birds with her introduction of Tassie unsettling, making me start to wonder what was in store for our protagonist.

I also began to look for more animal-rooted metaphors that could illuminate human relationships in the story. The scene in the first two chapters that stays with me is that of the dogs that lived next door to Sarah. The bigger dog would repeatedly lead the smaller dog to the electric fence, knowing that the smaller dog would shock itself. “The stunned terrier would then come racing back, shrieking with pain. This amused the German shepherd who continued to do this, and the shocked terrier, desperate for play, would forget, and get started again, and barrel on into the electricity…” (page 12). Talk about making me nervous. Tassie is in for it, potentially at the hands of Sarah. But why? Why does Tassie, who judges everyone who crosses her path, suspend judgment about Sarah? She seems drawn to her like a moth to a flame.

I think it’s rooted in Tassie’s unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, a source of disappointment and longing that Moore references throughout the first two chapters. Sarah is an “unmother” mother, so different from the pregnant mothers with whom she interviews and disdains. Which, ironically, Tassie’s own mother is as well. Tassie remembers her mother as almost proudly lacking a maternal instinct: “I wasn’t going to worry or interfere with you.” And Tassie recalls her assessment that her mother must be blind because it was the only explanation for “the strange way she never quite looked at me when we were speaking.” Mother issues. Tassie has them in spades.

I’m not drawn to Tassie. Her immaturity is unappealing to me, but then again, she is the definition of immature: an 18-year-old college freshman who is transitioning (in her eyes at a minimum) from country mouse to city mouse. Despite this, I am concerned for her and want to know what is in store as she joins the Brink household (interesting name). I also want to better understand if there is more to her relationship with her mother and if her mother will transform. So, I guess I’m hooked.

What do you think about Tassie? Moore’s writing style? Sarah Brink? Are you eager to read more? Looking forward to your thoughts.