Multiple plot lines twist and intertwine throughout Crossers. The central
protagonist, Gil Castle, is healing from his wife's death by creating a new life
for himself on the family homestead. Author Philip Caputo contrasts the
thoughtful Gil with his cousin Blaine Erskine, a lifelong rancher who seems to
channel the Old West of a bygone era.
Their ranch on the Mexican border is a thoroughfare for drug runners and illegal aliens, and in protecting his property Erskine runs afoul of one of the major drug lords (who is simultaneously involved in a bloody turf war with another kingpin). Throw in historical transcripts relating the life and times of
Erskine's grandfather, Ben, as well as discussions of 9/11, terrorism, and the
U.S. invasion of Iraq, and you've got one excessively complicated book. In the
hands of a lesser novelist, the complexity could be confusing, with too much
happening to follow. Caputo, however, manages to balance all the threads
beautifully, merging them into a rich and satisfying tapestry.
The author does an outstanding job depicting the American Southwest, both past and present. His description of the area's stark beauty brings it alive for the reader, creating a sense of time and place with a mastery few writers attain. He has an excellent ear for dialect as well, with the historic transcripts coming across as particularly authentic:
"Capitan Ybarra was Capitan Ynez Ybarra, what the revolucionarios called a soldadera, a lady soldier. There was a lot of them in the Revolution, but Ben and me didn't know that then, and we couldn't think what to make of her, with her long Indian skirt and cavalry boots and a pistola and a gunbelt that looked like it was made out of bullets The thing you noticed right off was her face, not because she was beautiful because she wasn't What that face did to you if you were a man was to make you want to touch it real soft like and to be afraid of touching it at the same time, like maybe she'd bite your finger off."
One of the book's primary subjects is the ambiguity most US citizens feel
about the presence of illegal aliens in the country. The author explores the
issue with a deft hand, demonstrating that there are no easy answers, no clear
right or wrong when dealing with people trying to make a better life for
themselves and their families. One of the characters sums up the dichotomy
succinctly: "One minute they make you want to build the Great Wall of China
on the border. The next minute you feel sorry for them and want to help them get
to wherever they're going
Some of these crossers have stories that make 'The
Grapes of Wrath' read like a comic book."
Crossers does have a number of flaws that may mar the reading experience for those who expect across-the-board perfection in a five-star novel. The major antagonist is a crudely drawn, over-the-top caricature; I've seen villains in Saturday morning cartoons with more depth. Erskine, too, is mostly one-dimensional. Caputo tries to mitigate some of this flatness by throwing in the occasional quirk (Erskine, for example, is adamantly pro-war, yet is proud of his musician son whose band plays anti-war songs), but these insertions feel contrived and do little to flesh out these characters. In addition, the dialog becomes stilted and preachy as the characters' discussions drift into political debate.
Crossers certainly contains thoughtful and descriptive narrative, but it's also a page-turning thriller and there's enough violence and intrigue to keep those who enjoy action-oriented books absorbed in the text. Fans of western literature, too, will find much to enjoy here in the ample descriptions of cowboys riding out on the plains, cattle drives, and sunsets across the desert. In addition, Caputo's skillful treatment of such important topics as illegal aliens in the United States and cross-border drug running means Crossers will likely appeal to a very broad audience.
Crossers is set in part near the small hamlet of Patagonia (population 881 including Philip Caputo who has a home there) which is about 20 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border. The photo above is taken from the combined website of Patagonia and neighboring Sonoita and Elgin.
This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the October 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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