Before you read this post, read Mark Slouka’s story “The Crossing” in the Paris Review. Come back and we’ll discuss.
Slouka manages to employ an unusual level of suspense and tenderness in this story. Admittedly, the plot and the situations of the story – a rushing river, a father eager to please his small son, a divided family – are already given to suspense and tenderness. But what is it that makes the development and the climax of the story get our hearts beating so fast? By dropping breadcrumbs in the opening paragraphs the author gives us a taste of the world outside the events of the story without revealing enough about them to sate our imaginations. He then ingratiates us into the world of the father and puts us on his side, before throwing him back into doubt. Finally, he makes us choose – the beauty of the earth or the sanctity of father and son?
The breadcrumbs that Slouka scatters in the beginning of the story make us want more, and they make us care deeply about what happens to father and son. We glimpse the son’s smallness and, indeed, his entire childhood in those “miniature jeans.” We glimpse the father’s deep depression and anhedonia in the simple sentence “and he hadn’t been happy in a while.” We know the father has a history with and love for the river valley: “nothing much had changed.” Later, we learn more about his need for “the nests of vines like something scratched out, the furred trunks, soft with rot,” but before we acquire that intimate knowledge, Slouka has already made him into an expert on the place. Of particular interest to us readers is the description of how the father picks up the boy from his regular home (with his mother). We know the boy’s parents are divorced, separated. We learn that perhaps the father has done something wrong, because of his hope that “maybe—maybe he could make this right.” We see his care for his son – care not to hit the boy’s head on the ceiling when he playfully tosses him over his shoulder. As the boy’s mother shakes her head, still in a bathrobe, we enter firmly into the father’s corner. We want him to succeed with his son and take him to the wild place by the river he loves so much. We want to know why he loves the river, and what has gone missing from his heart and his body that the river can bring back.
The second key device that Slouka uses to endear us to the world of the story is even more important; he subverts the father’s authority. As we go into the river country with father and son, we are greeted with Queen Anne’s Lace, the promise of a campfire, and elk – with beauty and hope. After fording the river all this will be possible, and more. The river flows slowly over rocks. But suddenly, “he felt a small shock, as if he were looking at a house he’d grown up in but now barely recognized. The river was bigger than he remembered it, stronger; it moved like a swiftly flowing field.” He considers turning back. Anxiety defines him. And yet all he says to his son is “‘Well, there she is.’”
The reader has entered a position of knowledge and distrust; we now fear for both father and son and feel an even stronger affection for the boy than we did before. We feel as determined to cross the river with them as ever, but we have lost the ability to trust the father’s skill or his understanding of the wildness to which he is trying to return.
When father and son successfully cross the river, and arrive at the barn, we have further bonded with each of them. Suddenly, Dad is an expert again, and the world is a beautiful and enchanting place. The “barn was just where he remembered it, standing against the trees like a rib cage.” As we observe him making preparations for the night ahead, we feel safer, warmer, as does his son. Slouka describes them deftly: the son’s question “‘Do the elk have to sleep in the rain?’”and the father’s putting “his arm around him—that tiny shoulder, tight as a nest” tell us more about this boy and this man than anything else could.
All this, against the backdrop of careful images seeded in a scattered but deliberate pattern – the “white noise” of the river, the “stars through the missing places in the roof” of the barn, “car-sized boulders nudged together like eggs,” the “hollow tock of the stones knocking against each other in the deeper water” – prepares us for the second fording of the river. This heartbreaking painting of scenes and descriptions makes us appreciate the intractable world for its beauty as much as we love father and son for their need and vulnerability. And when they cross the river the second time, our hearts go into our throats – for them, for their failure, for the father’s burning love for his son, for the boy’s tiny existence, and for the wildness that can’t help but be what it is.