The Crossing, the second book in Cormac McCarthy’s the Border trilogy, continues the trend of self-reflection in the aftermath of grief. All 3 books may be depressing in some instances, but this also gives them room to engage in lots of soul-searching reflection on the meaning of life.
In All the Pretty Horses we followed a young love struck protagonist into Mexico and marvelled as he made wrong decision after wrong decision as he allowed his boyish impulses guide him. For most our years of teenage rebellion pass with nothing more serious than the occasional telling off by an adult, but for John Grady his adventures lead him from prison to a stint as an outlaw trying to outrun the Mexican authorities. He is made to pay for every wrong turn instigated by his obstreperousness.
In the Crossing, however, we have a new cowboy in the shape of Billy Parham. Parham is as different from Grady as oil is from water. Both are cowboys, a dying breed in their times (around the Second World War), but where Grady only thinks with his heart and passions Parham on the contrary seems to be the level headed one, a characteristic perplexingly lost to him at the early stage of the novel when he makes a decision to go into Mexico.
Let’s backtrack for a moment and start from the beginning of the story: Billy is with his younger brother Boyd, who is more like Grady in that he is headstrong and capricious, when they meet a mysterious Indian on their way home – a humble homestead where their dad keeps horses. In a scene reminiscent of the opening of Great Expectations, the Indian asks for some food but then starts to dig for information on the family, do they have dogs out at night at their home etc. Billy is dubious but polite to the man and promises to bring him something to eat.
Meanwhile, the livestock starts to suffer when a pregnant wolf starts hunting them. Billy and his father set out to hunt the wolf with traps, but the wolf, smart as it is, evades all their attempts to catch her. Soon enough Billy goes out by himself in the middle of winter to try and eventually nabs her only to then feel pity for the animal.
It’s at this stage that he doesn’t think with his head, as I suggested earlier. Inexplicably, Billy decides to return the wolf to her home country and starts off on his journey to Mexico, crossing the border and continuing on toward the distant snow-capped mountains.
On his journey he meets with a country devastated by war where he as a white man is immediately conspicuous and is by turns both marvelled at and despised, especially by those who’ve taken up arms. On the other hand he will find with the ordinary citizenry, who’ve often found themselves displaced by all the fighting – he’ll find kindness and people who share what little food and shelter they have happily.
It’s this contrast of kindness and wickedness through his journey that makes for such a riveting story. Billy is still a teenager but has for all intents and purposes he’s adopted his captured wolf and is strongly attached to it and is highly motivated to return her to the wilderness.
He makes for a striking figure, this cowboy on a horse and leading a wolf by a rope, and then he meets with some armed men who want to buy the wolf off him. Billy refuses. By and by the wolf is stolen and Billy, still feeling a strong sense of responsibility toward the animal goes out in search for it and finds her being used roughly to entertain the locals in dogfights. The scene is brutal and Billy is helpless in the face of such callousness.
Finally he returns to America and finds his home desolate. Knowing a great tragedy has occurred he goes out in search for answers. Boyd is staying with some neighbours and he finds out that they were robbed and both his parents were killed, most likely by the Indian he and Boyd met with at the start.
Both orphans now decide to go after their father’s stolen horses. They cross the border, now Billy’s second time, and consequently come upon their horses and manage to take them back after a gunfight. Then as they start heading for home they come upon a beautiful young girl who is obviously in trouble.
Boyd convinces Billy to rescue her and together all 3 continue on. But while Boyd, recalcitrant and difficult to reason with, is enamoured by the girl, who is a revolutionary in the war, Billy is left to watch helplessly as his brother falls in love with her despite his warnings against it. Boyd is then shot through the chest by pursuing gunmen, leaving Billy to carry his dying brother on his horse in an attempt to get away.
He comes upon labourers in a truck, and when it seems his pursuers will not let up with their quest to capture he and Boyd, Billy hands over his brother to the men and rides in a different direction to lead off the gunmen.
After he shakes off their pursuers Billy comes upon a cabin where he meets a blind man and his wife. They talk about the nature of misfortune. The wife tells the story of her husband and how he came to be blinded by a vicious attack while in custody as a Prisoner of War. She goes on to say he wandered in his new darkness and came to a town where he met her, recently enduring her own misfortune and grieving for her father and brothers who were executed along with all the men in her village in a war where so many of the locals have lost so much.
She then goes on to tell of meeting a priest at the cemetery where she’s come to pay her respects and this priest discusses the unfairness of life. Just like the author of Ecclesiastes he reflects on how the wicked seemingly prosper in their wickedness, and, contrary to what is expected, also live long lives, while others die young. The priest advises her to keep her dead family in her memory for in her heart is where they should reside.
Her blind husband then speaks, and says that he believes the priest doesn’t see the whole picture and therefore his judgement is incomplete. He advises that life instead, rather than have you hold on to misfortune, actually demands you start over again. “For the world to survive it must be replenished daily. This man will be required to begin again whether he wishes to or not.”
In his third crossing over the border Billy, now fully rested from his ordeal in Mexico, goes back to look for his brother. He finds that Boyd recovered from his gunshot wound but then went on to join the revolutionary, the girl they’d rescued before, and was consequently shot dead.
Billy goes for his brother’s remains but again finds it impossible in a country much different from what he has been used to, for the locals have adopted Boyd, who they see as a freedom fighter, as their own and won’t allow his bones to be removed. In other words he now belongs to the people.
Billy, refusing to leave Boyd alone to rest in a foreign land, steals the bones from the graveyard, but is then tracked by locals who stab his horse in the chest. Here he meets kindness again in the form of a local healer who nurses the horse back to some semblance of health.
Billy returns to the United States, broken and destitute with no family and no money to speak of. It’s a different place from where he’s just come from. Now he needs money for basics where as in Mexico he was welcomed into any home, no matter how poor, to share what little they had to offer. But it’s also much safer from violent men and revolutionaries, and even as he reflects on his misfortune, probably considering the words of the blind man, whether to carry the dead in his heart or start over as life demands, he sees a dog, beat up, and not unlike the wolf that started his adventures not so long ago.
Billy shoos the dog away and is mean to it. He’s apparently changed – he will not help this poor creature like he did the wolf and be drawn into something he’ll have no control over. But change is hard and certainly in this situation not called for. He realises he’s wrong and goes out to look for the wounded dog to make amends. Upon not finding it he finally breaks down and weeps.