The book cover, with a wooden rocking cradle and baby shoes dangling from its corner, conjures baby boys, boys who become men, men who become fathers… the ongoing cycle.
The man in Patrick Somerville’s novel, The Cradle, is right in the thick of that terrific, life-altering stage of life when his pregnant wife is about to deliver her miracle. He is present for her as onlooker and provider and partner: at her beck and call, basically. In her eighth month, her power at its peak, Marissa makes a teensy request of Matt: She wants their baby to sleep in the very same Civil War-era cradle she slept in as a baby. She believes that the cradle might be found somewhere among her mother’s possessions.
This might be an easy assignment, except Marissa’s mother left home long ago and no one knows where she lives. Marissa wants no part in finding her, seeing her, or reconnecting with her—she just wants Matt to take care of her and provide this one thing. She believes that the cradle matters and she will not take no for an answer. Matt acquiesces, as that is his role, and so begins the quest.
Where has Marissa’s mother gone and why? “She’d left Marissa and Glen because she was going to start again somewhere else. Her version of escape was to begin. It was simple, but it left damage behind that she had to keep moving away from. What kind of woman, Matt wondered, would do this? What kind of person?”
Everything is fraught at this moment in the man’s life, as he looks ahead to fatherhood and back at childhood. The road trip brings up Matt’s own past for his consideration: what was lost, what he never had in the first place. “If Matt went way way way way back, he could remember things. Not a lot…. That far back, he’d been so young that he didn’t know any better than to accept whatever happened as the same thing that happened to everybody.”
The novel’s conceit—the search for the cradle—seems flimsy at first, until it becomes entangled with the stories of Matt’s uneasy early years in foster homes and with the mute and unloved boy he meets on his quest. Much of the novel deals with Matt’s choices—he and Marissa want to move into the next phase of life free of the troubled past. So why go looking for trouble? He can buy a wooden cradle anywhere. He could lie and show up with a reasonable facsimile. But Matt is not a liar or a nihilist. He thinks about all the adults who didn’t love him growing up, about how he has survived his own life:
“He had scrubbed himself clean of it. He had literally spent years tearing out his own insides, all of his twenties spent removing everything that had come before… What had scared him even more, then, was giving it to somebody else, either passing down to a child or transferring it sideways, to someone he loved.”
He has to decide how to live now, what kind of man he wants to be:
“Was it not obvious then, what this other feeling was… when he rushed through the carved passages of all that old pain, but rushed through them without the pain. Instead just existed and allowed himself to be what he was and what he had been at the same time. The divots and the paths and the channels that were there inside him were not malleable. Rather, it was what ran through them that was malleable.”
With The Cradle, Patrick Somerville offers a novel about the many layers of the self—what is found and what is lost and found again. It’s a Midwestern story, with the cold, dank, wide open mystery of abandoned prairies at its hopeful heart.