Gateway to the Moon, by Mary Morris

35791945There are many factors that contribute to the creation of a person. Three of them are highlighted in Mary Morris’ expansive family saga, Gateway to the Moon. First, there is our family history, portrayed here by the harrowing tale of the Cordero de Torres family from 1492 to the 1600s. Next, there is what happens to someone during their life, seen in the struggles of Elena Torres to make peace with the night a group of teenage boys attacked and raped her. Lastly, there is one’s own internal fire, which can propel a person like Miguel Torres out of his poor circumstances, past his mistakes, to a distinguished career as an astrobiologist. This novel moves slowly, but offers plenty of food for thought.

Miguel Torres comes from a long line of Jews, though he does not know it. Four hundred years before he was born, the Cordero and Torres family were forced to convert by royal decree (and brutally, sometimes fatally, enforced by the Inquisition). Even though his ancestors were persecuted, hints of Judaism survived. Miguel’s mother lights candles and says a blessing before dinner Friday night. No one in his New Mexico town of Entrada de la Luna eats pork or mixes dairy with meat. If you ask any of them, they’ll say they’re Catholic or not that religious. Not a lot of this matters particularly to Miguel, who is much more interested in what’s going on among the stars and on other planets until he gets a job with the newly arrived Rothsteins as a babysitter.

While we watch Miguel struggle with his attraction to Rachel Rothstein and wonder about the universe, we also get chapters narrated from the perspective of his putative aunt Elena. After her attack, Elena left home on a dance scholarship. I would say that she left and never looked back except she is constantly looking back. She travels the world trying to get as far away from who she was as she can, but she can’t forget—especially after she eats a dish of lamb tagine with chickpeas and apricots in Morocco that is almost exactly like the one her grandmother used to make back in Entrada.

To me the most interest sections were the chapters set in the 1490s, 1500s, and 1600s. These chapters follow fathers, mothers, sons, and wives as the Corderos and Torreses travel or emigrate permanently to the New World. These families converted to Catholicism under pain of death. Though they appear in public to practice Catholicism, they keep their Jewish faith and customs alive in secret. They keep these things alive so long that their descendants forget why they do them and accept these things as tradition. On the one hand, it’s sad that custom and ritual lose their meaning entirely. What is tradition without meaning, after all? Not only that, but members of the family paid high prices in money and lives to preserve the meaning of those traditions. But on the other hand, it means there is a little piece of secret Judaism being passed on in New Mexico of all places.

Gateway to the Moon has a leisurely pace, giving readers plenty of time to think about what they’re reading and why we get so many perspectives. This book offers us many opportunities to meditate on identity, purpose, faith, forgiveness, and many other topics, with just enough plot to keep our brains from melting under the strain of thinking about high concepts for extended periods of time. In sum, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would.

I received a free copy of the book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

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