Book Review: A Gate at the Stairs

Back story: I have an 8-page wish list on, Library Books. Two weeks ago, we took Cassie for her first visit to the library. Max came too, so I got a chance to go through the list and check two books out!

I heard about A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore, from Jenna. I read it because it prompted her to ask the question “What should exclude parents from adopting and/or can you still be a “good” parent/person after a big mistake?” I really wanted to know what the mistake was.

The book is really a coming of age story about Tassie Keltjin. It just happens to feature adoption. Tassie, a 20-year old college student who’s never been far from her Midwestern home, takes a job as a baby-sitter for Sarah Brink and her husband Edward. The thing is, when Tassie is first hired, Sarah says that they’re adopting a baby in January. Tassie says, “Congratulations” and it’s pretty much that attitude that gets her the job. The next day, Sarah takes Tassie, but not Edward, to meet a “birth mother.” So, at this point, Sarah isn’t even matched with an expectant mom, yet she hires a baby-sitter and takes her to a match meeting.

That match meeting does not work out. The expectant mother wants her baby to be baptized Catholic, but Sarah is half-Jewish (as is Tassie), and not religious at all.

Then, Sarah flies with Tassie to Green Bay to meet a baby who “might be as much as two”. All I kept thinking was, this author doesn’t know anything about adoption. It turns out, she actually has a teenager who was adopted. Still, I wondered what kind of adoptive parent doesn’t even ask how old the child she might be adopting is? And as the story unfolded, I really couldn’t believe a lot of it happening.

For example, Sarah doesn’t know, but suspects, that the “baby” might be Black. It turns out that the child is at least 1/4 Black. Again, this is something most adoptive parents would ask about before flying to meet a child. The parents are again told to lie about their religion. The birthmother wants a Catholic family, and may have been waiting for a Black or interracial couple since her daughter was born. The daughter, Mary, has been in foster care for almost two years. That’s the next thing I can’t imagine happening – a healthy, drug-free baby girl waiting in foster care for two years? If Catholic Charities (the agency who has the child) networked at all, I’m sure they could have found a family for said baby.

Sarah and Edward do become the foster parents for this child, and have every expectation of adopting her. Of course, Tassie spends more time with the child, whom Sarah renames Mary-Emma, or Emmie for short. Sarah and Tassie find that racism is quite alive in their little town, so Sarah starts a group for parents of Black children, some adopted, some not. What comes out of these people’s mouths! Some of it is so stupid, it’s almost profound. Most of it is just clueless banter.

What stuck with me the most was an incident that occurred on a playground. Emmie and another (white) girl are playing nicely. The girl’s mother, mistaking Tassie for Emmie’s mother, suggests that the two girls get together for a playdate sometime. You see, the girl doesn’t have any Black friends and – Tassie cuts her off, saying “Mary-Emma already has a lot of white friends.” She doesn’t want Mary-Emma to be a lesson for this girl, an example. I’m going to write more about this concept, but that’s another post.

A little more than halfway through the book, the big reveal occurs. To sum it up, Sarah and Edward committed a crime, received suspended sentences, moved away, and changed their names. They weren’t up front with the agency about this. They lose Emmie.

Here again, I don’t believe this could happen. A criminal background check, including fingerprints, is required by almost all states in a typical home study. Sarah and Edward would never have passed the home study.

How they lose Emmie also irks me. The child is literally yanked away from her protesting mother. She has nothing but a garbage bag full of random items to go with her. Given that the child is about 2-years old, and that she had been calling this woman “mama”, wouldn’t the agency arrange for an actual transition? At no point in this book does any adult treat Emmie like a person. She’s a doll that’s flung from one place to another.

Sarah and Edward losing Emmie isn’t the end of the book. You see, A Gate at the Stairs isn’t actually about adoption. It’s about Tassie. And more stuff happens to her. Or around her, really. To say that this book meanders is an insult to meanderers. This book wanders more than an Alzheimer’s patient. The adoption story is good. The rest of the book is not. I would honestly recommend that people read only the parts that have to do with Tassie’s interactions with Sarah, Edward, and Emmie. It won’t take you long, and it will really give you insight into the Midwest mindset on race in 2002.

One thought on “Book Review: A Gate at the Stairs

  1. Pingback: Having Enough White Friends « The Chittister Family

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