Showing posts with label Wallace Stegner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wallace Stegner. Show all posts

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Crossing to Safety

Wallace Stegner is becoming one of my favorite writers.  I really enjoyed his The Angle of Repose, which I read three years ago--has it been that long already?--but I absolutely loved his Crossing to Safety, which I finished this morning.

The title is from a Robert Frost poem, I Could Give All to Time, and the last stanza is quoted at the front of the book:
I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.
I found myself rereading these lines several times during the course of reading the novel, and they do beautifully and concisely, and poetically, encapsulate the novel.

Crossing to Safety is literature at it's finest.  Though it is the story of two couples and their friendship over four decades, Stegner didn't need horrific circumstances to explore the dark places of the heart and pysche.  Even when one of the characters is struck by a devastating illness, this takes place mostly off-stage.  It is the drama of life--living, loving, working, striving, disappointing, expecting, and being blind-sided--that Stegner navigates with a sure hand and a compassionate but honest voice.

According to Wikipedia, the novel is semi-autobiographical (note to self--find bio of Stegner).  The main character, the first-person narrator, is Larry Morgan--a writer and professor of English.  He and his wife Sally are befriended by Sid and Charity Lang when Larry lands a job at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1930s.  Sid is also a professor of English, and Charity is a budding matriarch, coming from a Boston family littered with intellectuals and strong women.

The story is told in flashbacks, beginning with Larry and Sally's arrival at the Lang family compound in Vermont in 34 years after the couples met, where Charity is facing terminal cancer and Sid is facing a life without Charity.

It is a beautifully crafted story, and an absolute pleasure to read.  There are many threads to the story, many parallels that provide ample fodder for thought.  Here are a few things that struck me.

- While Larry is often critical of Charity's controlling nature, which subverts Sid's desire to be a poet/farmer instead of a tenured professor, he does recognize a kindred spirit in her when he writes of relishing his role as novelist to control the world he creates for his characters.  Charity was a novelist who tried to create the world she wanted and tried to mold her family and friends into characters of her making.  And yet, many novelists talk about struggling to actually control their characters--many are surprised to find themselves recording stories they have unleashed.

- Despite Charity's controlling nature, no one questions that she is generosity itself.  Time and again, she selflessly cares for others--her smile lights up the room, and she is intuitive and sensitive, caring, and open.  She is well-named--she is charity...and yet, with charity comes power.  There is no such thing as a free lunch, in the end.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

"The matriarchy simply unhinged its jaw and swallowed him as it swallows all sons-in-law."
"Nothing is so safe as habit, even when habit is faked."

"...there is this snake, no bigger than a twig or a flame of movement in the grass. It is not an intruder in Eden, it was born here. It is one of Hawthorne's bosom serpents, rarely noticed because in the bosom it inhabits it can so easily camouflage itself among a crowd of the warmest and most generous sentiments."

  • This is one of the most interesting ideas in the book. The snake doesn't intrude into Eden, it was born there! Eden's idyllic state is inherently unstable because the serpent is of Eden.

As a hiker I was thrilled to find Larry and Sid quoting Bliss Carman's A Vagabond Song
THERE is something in the autumn that is native to my blood—
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.
And finally and most fittingly:
"How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?” 

Crossing to Safety is a quiet book about decent, intelligent, interesting, ordinary people--it is a wise and thoughtful book, heart-breaking in its compassion.  It tells a story of survival, and reminds the reader that survival is only temporary: I would give all to Time...and what I would not part with I have kept.

Crossing to Safety is a TBR Pile Challenge book on my 2014 list.  Another favorite from the TBR Pile!  It's only the 4th book I've read this year from my list of 12--I need to get cracking on the list and stop getting side-tracked.  We've just passed the Solstice!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Mailbox Monday...on Tuesday

Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the exciting books that came into their house last week via post. Warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists!

Mailbox Monday was created by Marcia at A Girl and her Books, and is currently being hosted by Mari from Mari Reads for the month of May.

A few new books arrived recently, including The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguo. I have wanted to read this for years, and would love to watch the movie as well, but never owned a copy so now I swear I will carve out time for this book this year.

After I posted about Wallace Stegner's excellent Angle of Repose, many commented that Crossing to Safety was actually their favorite of Stegner's novels, so I had to get a copy. I also pulled his Beyond the Hundredth Meridian off the shelf and added it to the reading pile--I picked it up last time I visited the Grand Canyon, and would really like to read about John Wesley Powell.

Finally, I got my copy of the latest issue of Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America. It is chock full of fascinating papers (here's the Table of Contents, many about Northanger Abbey, which was the focus of last year's Annual General Meeting. I've already read the first three papers, and plan to read it between major books, sort of like the way I read short stories. Some of the papers are available online here.

Let the summer commence...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Angle of Repose

For years now, Wallace Stegner has been recommended to me and in particular his Pulitizer-Prize winning novel from 1972, Angle of Repose. For some reason, I always put off reading Stegner and this novel, though I'm not sure why--it had the aura of being a "difficult" book and I was never in the mood.

Then, I started building up credits and saw it whilst browsing and sprang for it, and loved it! I do tend to gush a lot about good books when I've just finished them, so ask me in six months what I think...but today, I consider this among the best books I've ever read.

The book is a first-person narrative by the main character, Lyman Ward. Ward, confined to a wheelchair, is a middle-aged historian who is writing the biography of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, an artist/writer who went west as a bride in the 1870s. Stegner used the real letters of Mary Hallock Foote as the basis of the life of Susan Ward, and he quotes them within the novel itself.

I loved the way Stegner created two parallel stories, that of Lyman Ward and his immediate family and that of his grandmother and her friends and family. Together these two stories provide the story of a family as well as a perspective on the American frontier experience, which is determined by space, work, economy, politics, dreams, water and the lack of it.

In my previous post, I blogged about The Wilder Life and The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and I mentioned that I felt like I had taken a Little House reading challenge. Well, that thought persists because I thought of Laura and Almanzo Wilder a lot while I listened to this book. The story of Susan Burling Ward is really the story of her marriage and her life as a frontier/mining wife who faces hardship after hardship, disappointment after disappointment as her husband struggles to make a living in a rough, competitive world without compromising his integrity.

For me, the hero of the book is Susan's husband, Oliver Ward--stalwart, intelligent, gifted, stoic--and at times I felt so frustrated with Susan for not seeing him for the hero he was. I can imagine him saying, as Alamanzo Wilder did, that his life was a string of disappointments. The LH books present a warm, rosy view of pioneer life. Angle of Repose paints a much harsher, more realistic picture.

I found Lyman Ward's voice to be compelling, unique, and powerful as he dug away at the layers of dust over his grandmother's life and in so doing revealed the story of his own.

I thought a lot about the metaphor angle of repose while I was reading the book--it basically is the slope at which dirt stops sliding downhill and stays put. When I Googled it, I saw images of mounds of dirt, but when I was reading the book I kept on thinking about Oliver Ward digging trenches...first as a mining engineer, then as an irrigation engineer, and the dirt kept on falling back into the trench, making his work that much harder. Finally, he found a way to work without having the dirt back fall on top of him.

So often when I read a book that I really like, it opens up new areas for me to explore. Now, I'm eager to read Mary Hallock Foote's memoir, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, which contains the complete letters that Stegner drew from.

Here's an example of one of the drawings she created to illustrate her stories and travel pieces on life on the frontier.