Gateway to the Moon
Nan A. Talese
2018, 352 pp, $20.87
Entrada de la Luna, New Mexico, is a small town with a big mystery. Why do its Spanish Catholic families light candles on Friday night? Why doesn’t anyone eat pork? The answers, it turns out, lie half a millennium ago, in 15th-century Spain. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered all Jews and Muslims to convert or be expelled from Spain. That same year, Christopher Columbus set sail for America, and with him went Luis de Torres, an interpreter and a converso, a man forced by the Inquisition to convert to Catholicism while still secretly practicing the Jewish faith. Over the centuries, his descendants migrated from Spain and Portugal to Mexico and then, after the Inquisition spread there, settled in what became New Mexico. It is there that award-winning author Mary Morris’s gripping new novel, Gateway to the Moon, begins in 1992 with the story of the fictional de Torres’s descendant, Miguel Torres, an amateur astronomer and juvenile delinquent (the real Luis de Torre died in Cuba).
Entrada de la Luna (in English, “gateway to the moon”) is a dirt-poor town that ambitious teenagers like Miguel long to leave. Miguel shares a trailer with his mother, a woman exhausted by the weight of her past traumas; and his father is an alcoholic who earns a living by spray-painting pictures on cars. With few prospects at home, when Miguel sees a flyer for a babysitting job in nearby Santa Fe, he seizes the opportunity. The Rothsteins, a Jewish family newly transplanted from New York, have come to New Mexico for a fresh start. Miguel loves the family but is surprised to find that many of the Rothsteins’ Jewish customs, such as eating chicken soup on Friday night, remind him of the traditions of his Hispanic Catholic family. Why, he wonders, are Jewish traditions so similar to his own?
Stories of Miguel’s converso ancestors are interwoven throughout the present-day narrative. Beginning in 15th-century Spain and continuing through the European discovery of America, adventurous entrepreneurs and courageous women populate this rich saga of the Sephardic diaspora. Their lives alternate between periods of peace and moments of tragedy when the ever-vigilant Inquisition rears its deadly head. These stories of how the conversos lived, loved and sometimes perished—all while hiding their roots—create a compelling narrative of survival.
In the book, many of Luis de Torres’s descendants long to die as Jews, begging to be killed on their deathbeds so the Mourners Kaddish can be said for them before a priest is able to administer last rites. Others, like Sofia Pera, who married Luis’s grandson Frederico, are arrested and imprisoned in Mexico for trivial offenses—in this case, Sofia and Frederico are turned in by their housemaid and charged with 132 counts of heresy, including “sins” such as sleeping late on Christmas morning. Sofia’s long years in prison include some of the most searing images in the book, and the pain of her isolation is palpable. Reading these tales of suffering, we begin to understand why conversos repressed their religion. Over time, memories of their Jewish identity vanished, but their ritual practices continued, devoid of meaning.
Despite her heavy topic, Morris is a gifted storyteller, and this vivid novel is a real page turner. She deftly glides back and forth between a wide range of time periods and locales. And while a few of the minor characters and subplots feel a bit superfluous, for the most part the complex plot unfolds easily. Morris is a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of novels, short stories and travel memoirs—she could be a poet, her writing is so richly textured and lyrical.
Parts of the novel’s premise may seem far-fetched and, in fact, tales of converso identity in the Southwest have long been a source of great controversy—a remote possibility magnified by the media but heatedly disputed by many scholars. In his book, To the End of the Earth, New Mexico’s state-appointed historian Stanley Hordes describes his discoveries of genealogical links between families in the Southwest with “vestigial Jewish traditions” and victims of the Inquisition in Mexico, Portugal and Spain. Other historians, however, conclude that these traditions were more likely to have come from a separatist sect of Seventh-Day Adventists in the Southwest. Regardless, stories of Hispanic Catholics who wear yarmulkes and pray three times a day facing east are an accepted part of the region’s folklore.
Morris’s novel was inspired by a babysitter Morris employed in Santa Fe 25 years ago. He believed himself to be a converso and peppered Morris’s family with endless questions about Jews and Jewish ritual. Similarly, Morris’s book illuminates the ways in which lives of the past echo in the present, whether we are conscious of it or not. At its core, Gateway to the Moon is a story about spiritual memories, connectedness and the basic human desire to understand where we come from. Morris poignantly captures this in the novel’s epitaph when she quotes the French novelist André Malraux: “The great mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.”
Marilyn Cooper is Moment’s culture editor.