The Steps Across the Water by Adam Gopnik is an illustrated children’s chapter book that chronicles the adventurers of a young girl, Rose, as she tries to battle evil in two parallel worlds. Rose is an adopted member of her family, and throughout the story she confronts and overcomes the limitations of the term family. Gopnik uses the city of New York as an anchor to reality while constructing for his readers the fictional realm of U Nork, a city modeled on New York but much larger in scope and vision. In the beginning.
Readers familiar with fairy tales and other fantasy literature will immediately see the influence of other popular works in The Steps Across the Water. For example, the Ice Queen is able to control people when they get a piece of ice lodged in their eye, a detail the story shares with the fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” We also see the influence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Rose, much like Lucy, is a very sensitive girl. It is she to whom the steps are revealed at the beginning. After crossing them and learning of U Nork’s dire existential circumstances, she decides to proceed by offering whatever assistance she can. We also see the element of the Ice Queen, a woman who desires only winter and leads a very cold, hard life, a woman whose mission has become the destruction of U Nork.
Gopnik’s use of sarcasm throughout the book is successful at keeping adult readers entertained, albeit until the next page. For example, when Rose arrives in U Nork, she sees people paying for various goods and services by pulling coins out of their nose. Later after she and Louis have finished having lunch, he bites down on the check and tells her that they have his teeth marks on file. He explains, “That’s the way you charge a bill here…You either gotta pay through the nose of pay through your teeth.” Rose later learns that U Nork’s problems are its foundation and who controls it. Louis tells her, “I told ya U Nork was built on money.” Gopnik uses U Nork as a vessel of critique for New York in such a way that the cynicism is recognizable but not overwhelming.
The intended audience of the story has been obscured by both the language and the actions of the characters involved. Rose is a ten-year-old girl, but she is presented in a way that causes the reader to forget her age and focus on her maturity. For example, when she first visits U Nork, Louis takes her to a nice lunch (nice in the U Norkian sense). This lunch involves being seated in a vertical human pyramid. Rose climbs up and up and tries to comfortably situate herself on someone else’s shoulders, and Gopnik writes, “She looked down, then quickly looked back up. It was so precarious!” In this case, the narrative voice seems to have slipped from that of our protagonist to the author himself. Gopnik doesn’t shy away from incorporating minor four-letter words throughout the text, and although they are not overwhelming, they do cause confusion when trying to determine an appropriate audience.
The author’s own familiarity with New York serves to create a more realistic experience; however, for readers unfamiliar with the size and scope of that city, the over-exaggerated features of U Nork will seem less tangible, less significant.
The Steps Across the Water is a mildly entertaining story, and younger readers are sure to appreciate the illustrations, which have a nostalgic quality. However, older readers are likely to be bored by the author’s insistence on the vast difference between New York and U Nork. While the issue of family and its parameters is commendably dealt with and while Rose is somewhat a sympathetic character, The Steps Across the Water is likely to be a more poignant story to a local audience, one familiar with the setting and its possibilities.