Crossers, by Philip Caputo

On a trip to Phoenix recently, I pulled out Crossers from Philip Caputo for an airplane companion. It’s the story of Gil Castle, a 9/11 widower who retreats to the old family ranch in Arizona, near the Mexican border, to recover from the loss of his wife. There he reconnects to his family, to the Seneca he draws consolation from, and finally to himself. Then he stumbles across a Crosser, a Mexican making the crossing from Mexico to a hoped-for better life, and the trouble begins.

Crossers is deeply evocative of a time and place in history, much as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel does for southern France, or Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park does for post-communist Moscow. Like those novels there is a deep nostalgia for the way things were, as well as a recognition that those times are best not gone back to. The novel does a great job of conveying what it means to be a rancher in Arizona, to love the land, and to be bound to it in a way that money can’t buy.

The book is equal parts No Country for Old Men (comparisons to Cormac McCarthy are inevitable) and CNN news headlines. Most of the atrocities described in the book are factual or near so. The grim realities of those dying attempting to cross the desert and the border, and the horrific violence brought on by the drug trade, combine to produce a level of death and destruction that feels like it belongs to a medieval era in some other country, not 21st century America. The hierarchy of crime in Mexico also feels medieval – drug runners have guns & more money, and so determine who gets to traffics drugs or people along which route. They dominate the coyotes and the engranchadors that run human trafficking of illegal immigrants to the US, much as a feudal lord might direct a lower life form.

Interleaved with the current day story line are interleaved tales of Gil’s grandfather Ben from the turn of the century border – a time when men pretty much enforced their own law, and lived by a code that often coincided with the law (but often did not). Ben dominates the novel – a self-reliant cowboy who participates in Mexican revolutions, sheriffs on the American side, and constantly battles his inner demons and shifts between good and bad. I found the descriptions of that era, and it’s characters, as (or more) compelling than the modern story line. A quick snippet:

“Tibbets looked the part. Handlebar mustache, cat’s whiskers at the corner of his eyes, two pearl-handled Colt revolvers, and the air of someone who could summon up reserves of unpleasantness if the situation required it.”

Crossers is a powerful novel. If you have any interest in the reality of life on our southern border, read it. Whatever your perspective on the solution for that problem, Crossers will give you something to think about.

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