Standing at the Crossroads by Charles Davis is both harrowing and hypnotic but, above all, it’s a touching paean to the power of literature. The novel’s protagonist and narrator — a nomadic African known only as the barefoot librarian — exhorts the reader to call him Ishmael before moving on to a tale of survival and heartbreak in his war-torn homeland. In due time, the librarian’s references to a good chunk of the canon of nineteenth-century western literature reveal him to be an old soul deeply rooted in the (sense and) sensibilities of a bygone era, yet his attitude toward books emerges as distinctly contemporary.
In one passage, the narrator explains, “I like books and the play we make with them… because they resist the withering regulation of small minds, are wayward and intricate, full of unpredictable patterns, like life itself.” Elsewhere, he opines that the hunger for books “is an appetite that implies hope and independence, not despair and dependence.” Together, these two observations about the power of literature more or less sum up the overall tone of Standing at the Crossroads. Set in a world that is wracked with the trappings of despair, the novel is, nonetheless, filled with hope and wonder, and it’s the long, winding perambulations of the narrator and his cohorts that allows both of these elements to emerge.
Of course, there’s more to the novel than the barefoot librarian’s musings on the nature of literature. There’s also a riveting plot that involves his efforts to protect a young American researcher named Kate from a monomaniacal band of misogynistic religious zealots. That Kate dares to speak truth to power (indeed, that she dares to speak at all!) makes her a target for those with much to lose, yet it’s her quiet strength that captures the heart of the barefoot librarian and allows him to ruminate at great length not just on the nature of words, but on the nature of the human heart as well.
The world “is not made up of discrete bodies but of bodies connected to one another,” the narrator notes at one point in the novel; “the real beauty and value of living is to be found in the links between things.” Such inspiring sentiments abound in Standing at the Crossroads. That Charles Davis can weave them into a taught, dramatic narrative and still leave room for a crash-course in literary theory is a testament to his skills as a thinker and a writer. To say it as succinctly as possible, Standing at the Crossroads is a profoundly moving read.