Gary Paulsen’s The Crossing is a young adult novel published in 1987. This realistic work of fiction highlights the hope and opportunity Manny, a Mexican teenager, envisions waiting for him in America, and the desperation that propels him to attempt the border crossing from Mexico into the United States.
Paulsen (1939-2021) was a celebrated author of middle grade and young adult fiction, best known for writing the award-winning Hatchet series. His work often depicts wilderness settings, explores themes of survival, and features young men coming-of-age. When Paulsen was awarded the ALA Margaret Edwards Award for his contributions to young adult literature, The Crossing was among his titles selected as indicative of his career.
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This guide refers to the 2005 Scholastic Edition of the novel.
Please be advised that The Crossing includes depictions of human trafficking and alcoholism.
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Manny, 14, lives alone on the streets in Juárez, Mexico, a town on the US-Mexico border. He struggles for survival every day, fighting bullies, outrunning street gangs, and begging for money to stave off starvation. He believes that his best hope at improving his life is to cross the border into the United States, and one night feels like the right night to try. In preparation for his dangerous journey, Manny convinces a local restaurant cook, Maria, to give him a whole chicken and some tortillas. He spends the day begging from tourists under the bridge that crosses the dried riverbed of the Rio Grande, the border between Juárez and El Paso, Texas. Manny comes close to getting a dollar bill thrown by an American from the bridge, but a larger boy named Pacho beats Manny and steals the dollar from him. He won’t have any money to help him cross the border that night.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Robert Locke sips whiskey as he prepares to leave his barracks in El Paso, Texas, and cross the border into Juárez, Mexico. As is his habit on his nights off, he goes to the Club Congo Tiki, where he sits in the corner and drinks Scotch until he enters a state of numbness. He consumes alcohol whenever he is off duty because intoxication keeps images of his dead friends from coming to his mind. During his career in the military, Robert has experienced the trauma of battle and the loss of his comrades, and drinking is his way of coping with his emotional scars.
As darkness falls, Manny waits beneath the bridge for the opportune moment to cross the dry riverbed. Although he cannot see them, he knows many others also wait to attempt the crossing. Manny eats the chicken and tortillas Maria gave him, knowing it’s best to have the food in his stomach where no one can steal it from him. Past midnight, searchlights suddenly flood the riverbed, revealing hundreds of people in the midst of crossing. Chaos ensues, and Manny plans to wait it out from his hiding spot. However, he is soon surrounded and grabbed by a gang of men. He knows he is in grave danger since these men do not hesitate to kill, and Manny listens as they discuss selling him to be trafficked. The searchlights click off, and Manny sees his opportunity. He makes an escape from the men, and although they give chase, he loses them in the alleys of Juárez.
Manny ends up in the alley behind the Club Congo Tiki, where he sees a soldier—Sergeant Robert Locke—vomiting against the wall. He notices a wallet in the soldier’s pocket and attempts to take it while Robert is distracted. However, Robert is quick and aware despite his drunken state. He grabs Manny’s wrist and pulls him towards the bridge. At the bridge, a Mexican policeman stops Robert and forces him to let Manny go. Robert and Manny go their separate ways, but Manny is struck by the fact that Robert did not tell the policeman he caught Manny trying to steal his wallet. He wonders if the soldier might be a generous man and hopes to see him again.
A few days later, Manny sees Robert walking towards the Rio Brava hotel, and on an impulse, enters and finds Robert sitting in the hotel café. Robert notices Manny and eventually recognizes him from the alley. He motions for Manny to join him at the table and allows Manny to order anything he wants from the menu. When the meal comes, a hungry Manny snatches food from every plate and crams it into his mouth, engaging Robert’s sympathy. Robert and Manny introduce themselves and have a short conversation. Manny tells lies about his family background, hoping the sergeant will give him money. While Manny is still eating, the sergeant pays the bill and leaves, but Manny soon follows and catches up to him.
Robert sees a poster advertising a bullfight and decides he must see it. The fight starts in three hours, so while he waits, the sergeant buys whiskey, all the while followed by Manny. Robert pays for Manny to see the bullfight with him. Although Manny has always dreamed of seeing a bullfight, he knows he must be careful to stay on the sergeant’s good side; he hopes to get some money from him. Manny notices that during the fight, the sergeant is upset by the killing and blood. Robert speaks softly as if talking to the bull with sadness and compassion in his voice, and leaves before the fight ends. Robert walks directly to the Club Congo Tiki, where the bouncer forces Manny to remain outside.
A week passes, and Manny feels increasingly desperate to leave Juárez. He sees the sergeant again one night, and to his surprise, Robert gives him a five-dollar bill. Manny is grateful for the money, but he soon realizes that help from the sergeant might be his best chance at crossing the border. The next night, he finds Robert and, for the first time in his life, Manny tells the truth about his situation. He asks for the sergeant’s help, and the sergeant agrees to give it. Robert is surprised to find that he sincerely wants to help Manny, even though he has been closed off to others emotionally for a long time. Shortly after Robert says he will help Manny, the four men who attacked Manny during his earlier attempted border crossing appear and surround them. They want to take Manny, but Robert chooses to fight them rather than surrender the teenager to them. He knocks the men unconscious one by one, but not before he suffers several stab wounds. As Robert falls to the ground and dies, he gives Manny his wallet and tells him to run, cross the border, and build a better life.
By Gary Paulsen