Crossing Purgatory

Written by Gary Schanbacher
Review by Wisteria Leigh

In May of 1858, Thompson Grey abandons his farm in Indiana, unable to live in the present and inconsolable after the death of his wife and two children. He feels responsible, believing his lust for a better life killed his family, and walks away full of thoughts about his empty life.

There can be no words to describe Thompson’s deep sense of guilt and self-loathing, but Gary Schanbacher gives readers a rare glimpse into a man’s emotional battles: “Dream world or real? … He fought to relegate his dark epiphany to the realm of drifting and unreliable imagination… The world took shape … but the truth remained before him, ox-like, stubborn, massive and accusing.”

Crossing Purgatory is the hellish self-imposed journey Thompson takes as he grieves daily, directionless, haunted by nightmares and restless nights. Bereft of everything he loves, he prefers the open space of the outdoors. Perhaps his purpose is to find his lost soul. He is confronted by Captain Upperdine, a wagonmaster leading immigrants to a new life out West along the Sante Fe Trail. Upperdine, puzzled by the taciturn farmer, relays the perils of the unforgiving climate and convinces Thompson to help him manage his party across the country.

As his wagon train diminishes in size, Upperdine leads Thompson and one remaining family to his home to rest and make plans. Upperdine has an Indian wife, who provides some security from her people and protection for his vast land holdings. The land isn’t suitable for crops, but Thompson devises a plan to farm the barren land for profit. Unsure about his future and driven by blinding ambition, he is tempted to revisit his past.

Gary Schanbacher strips Thompson Grey down to his intimate, unfiltered thoughts. Readers will savor this beautifully rich historical novel, a work whose literary future is assured. Schanbacher’s clear writing illuminates many precise visual details. Take this one on vacation this summer.