Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen took me back into my childhood. My large, unruly childhood family lived next door to a quaint and very tolerant Mennonite couple. Franzen’s main character in Crossroads grew up in a Mennonite family, living in a Mennonite community. These simple folks, similar to the Amish people, usually eschew modern machines and inventions, although Russ Hildebrandt’s family did have tractors. Mennonites are often farmers because other careers take them out of their spiritual comfort zone.
Russ leaves the Mennonite community in Lesser Hebron, Indiana where they practice simplicity “to make the Kingdom of Heaven manifest on earth.” He learned about serving others because it was a way of life. His father was the pastor for the community. His mother “made emulating Christ seem effortlessly rewarding.” Russ left because he was drafted in 1944 with five semesters of college completed. Because he could not shun his grandfather for living with his girlfriend, Russ’s family disowned him. He did his army service at a former CCC camp outside Flagstaff, Arizona, which is where he connected with the Navajo people who he continued to visit over the years. He was comfortable with the Navajos because he understood that they lived simply, also for spiritual reasons.
Because of Russ’s background sexual thoughts presented as a feeling of nausea. These thoughts were sinful. While still in the army he met Marion, his future wife, and learned that the way his body reacted, in his case, to women was natural but had to be governed and controlled by will. Marion was a Catholic girl with many secrets of her own and she carried with her the kind of guilt that caused monks to flagellate themselves or wear hair shirts constantly irritating their skin.
These two complicated people (and aren’t we all complicated) parented four children; Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson and lived together peacefully until they all reached a sort of midlife crisis as three of their children entered puberty and a beautiful widow arrived at the First Reformed Church where Russ was the Associate Pastor. He was feeling low, having recently been replaced as the Youth Group leader by a younger hipper hiree. Marion was also at a crossroads. In fact, Crossroads was the name of the church youth group and clearly a symbol of one of the themes of the novel.
It’s the 70’s, near the end of the Vietnam War. There are no cell phones; there is no social media, but there are drugs. When parent’s lives go off the rails even temporarily, families can suffer losses. As children begin to see the flaws in their parents and separation begins, children may make choices that dismay even the most distracted of parents.
Underpinning this story of an American family lies a nuanced conversation about God and Jesus, faith and religion, service to others and self-absorption. There is nothing preachy about it. Because Jonathan Franzen is able to entwine spirituality around the lives he depicts and the events he recounts, the exploration of spirituality is where the true value of this book lies. It reverberates in your mind and reminds you that you may indeed have a soul.