Miguel worries about ilegales crossing the desert—not his cousins and girlfriend, who are still waiting at the border, but others—the anonymous, but not anonymous to themselves, since this is, after all, their one life. (Libby in monologue)
In her novel, Sky Bridge, Laura Pritchett dips into the anonymous stew of struggling rural small-town humanity and shows us one life in fine detail: the life of Libby, the narrator, a young woman who became a mother in deed if not in fact when she was a child herself and took responsibility for her little sister, Tess. Now, in the time present of the story, Libby does not want pregnant Tess to have an abortion and promises to raise the child herself. And she does not want Tess to leave after the Amber’s birth, but Tess does.
And the rest is the story. And a compelling, fresh story it is.
Libby carries many voices in her head: Kay, Libby’s mom, telling her she’s a disappointment, not up to taking care of baby Amber. Derek, Libby’s boyfriend, telling her she is not beautiful. Miguel, husband of Libby’s best friend, telling her the two of them have been left behind, and now it’s too late for them to get out of Lamar, Colorado. Frank, her employer, telling her that where they live is “the last fine place to be.” Baxter, her mom’s employer, telling her “If you can suffer and not be bitter it will change you into a real human. A soft human.” Arlene, a coworker, telling her she’s a beautiful kid, though Libby feels this can’t possibly be true. Libby’s own narrative voice is so intimate the reader can’t help embracing her and hers as they each live “their one life.” Like Libby, we learn not to pay much attention to Kay’s soliloquies of rage and bitterness because we know that ultimately Kay, like almost everybody, will step up and do a version of the right thing. Exception: Tess’s associate, Clark.
Pritchett shows us the universal in the particular. Bad people do good things. Good people do bad things. Sometimes bad is good. Sometimes good is bad. Libby and Tess’s profligate and violent dad (bad) is still remembered for staying with the body of Frank’s fiancé (good) when she was killed in an auto accident. Miguel (good) grows pot (bad—at least in 2005) to pay for the coyotes (good, unless breaking the law is bad). Eventually, pretty much everybody gives a hand to the ilegales—some do it for money, but most do it out of kindness. Ed, the post-hippie beekeeping environmentalist, an outsider in an orange VW van, becomes a sort of guardian who posts his bee hives strategically so he can keep a protective eye on Libby and Amber (good) and his pot (arguably bad). Who strategically dumps a dog (in principle, bad), which Libby is sure to take in and be protected by (good).
Sometimes the bad things feel banal: Libby’s stealing beer from her employer. Arlene’s clipping unredeemed coupons and sending them in. Simon’s family deciding to take Amber from Libby because they can “raise it right”—banal because of the cliched assumption that a churchy couple will be better parents than an unmarried, unmoored young aunt.
But sometimes the bad things feel far from banal. They feel evil. Clark’s rape of Libby as entitled revenge on Tess, for example. His jacking up the price on the ilegales at the end of the trip. Yet even he gives Libby good advice when he tells her to learn to let go of certain people, which she eventually does.
As the novel progresses, caring for a newborn wears Libby down, down, down beyond exhaustion. She comes to understand why moms sometimes do bad things to their kids, and she also comes to understand her strength and the strength of the community to do the fundamentally good thing: see other people.
See people, I want to tell her. See them, and especially see them if at first you don’t think they’re worth noticing. (Libby in monologue near the end, speaking of Tess)
Eventually the little row of marigolds in the yard begins to thrive, the bathroom gets cleaned, the house gets painted, even tough, cynical Kay pitches in to help the ilegales.Tess does the paperwork to make baby Amber legal. Libby lets Tess go. Amber wiggles with joy when she catches sight of Libby, her mom. A measure of contentment reigns, but it’s a dynamic contentment.
I keep seeing how everybody is pushing ahead, looking for a place with enough space for our dreams. The ilegales. Tess. Derek. Me. Moving forward, trying to cross those invisible boundaries so we can find the place where we’re most free and the most full.
Perhaps that place is the sky bridge—that special state of being where one can reach up and touch the blue sky.
Ed tells Libby, “Art is what gets us beyond what is real. It makes reality more real. It also shortens the distance we gotta travel to see how connected we are.” A good summation of this lovely novel.
— Sharelle Moranville