That year in the late 15th century not only marks Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage but also records the ultimatum the crown gave Spanish Jews – expulsion or conversion to Catholicism.
Among those who stayed were crypto-Jews. They ostensibly converted, but secretly kept Jewish rituals. If discovered, they could be publicly burned as heretics by the Inquisition.
Torres is the principal surname that threads throughout. The crypto-Jew Luis de Torres, is Columbus’ interpreter and is one of the few historical figures in the novel.
Travel to the late 20th century and meet the book’s central – and fictional – character, the smart, wise, inquisitive teenager Miguel Torres. He and his family live in the New Mexico mountain village of Entrada de la Luna.
Miguel is trying to figure out his identity as he thinks about the past, analyzes the present and anticipates the future. Who were his ancestors? Why is it no one in town eats pork? Is he smart enough to go to college? Is he destined to stay in Entrada or leave like his ballerina-aunt Elena?
Miguel takes a baby-sitting job with the Rothsteins, a Jewish family that has just moved to Santa Fe.
The idea of introducing a young Hispanic baby sitter as a character grew out of the author’s own experience when her family lived in Santa Fe in 1990. They had a baby sitter who was curious about her family’s Jewish background and wondered about the possibility of his own Jewish roots, Morris said in an interview.
The novel maintains a steady, easy-to-follow pace as it shifts back and forth between the lives of crypto-Jews in Iberia and in New Spain, and the members of Miguel’s extended family and the Roybals, another Entrada family.
And what about the moon in the book’s title? One could argue that the moon and other celestial bodies are themselves characters that are introduced in various contexts.
Here are some examples:
• An amateur astronomer, Miguel trains his telescope on the night sky.
His hope is to one day discover a moon or travel to other galaxies. Who knows? He might wind up working for NASA.
• The village’s name derives from a local legend about the view of the moon that conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado saw through the mountains.
• Luis de Torres learns celestial navigation from a fellow crypto-Jewish sailor on the Santa María. Columbus’ own navigation is guided by the moon and stars.
• Miguel wins a national science competition for his research showing that dung beetles navigate by using the stars.
• Miguel ponders what the novel calls a “three-body problem. … How is it that the Earth, sun and moon exert gravitational forces on one another?”
• Rachel, the Rothstein mother, is convinced her whole body is governed by the moon.
• Beatrice de Luna, a crypto-Jew in 16th century Portugal, is from a family whose surname is from a town in northern Spain from which it was expelled.
• The character Benjamin, a friend and associate of the Luna family, is secretly enamored of the married, and soon to be widowed, Beatrice.
Benjamin is thinking, “It was as if she came from the moon itself. She has long been the light that shines in his darkness.”
In all, “Gateway to the Moon” is a rewarding read.
Morris said Albuquerque historian Stanley Hordes was her “intellectual guide” in her research for the novel. In the acknowledgements she wrote that Hordes’ “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico” was a valuable tool.