1972: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner


 From the back cover:

A deeply moving novel that, through the prism of on family, illuminates the American present against the fascinating background of our past.

Angle of Repose tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home of Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease and dependent on others for his every need, Ward is nonetheless embarking on a search of monumental proportions–to rediscover his grandmother, now long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward’s investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life.

My thoughts:

Lyman Ward is an amputee, unable to move his neck, plagued by the pains and limitations of bone disease, who has retired to his grandparents cabin, holding out against his son’s attempts to move him to a nursing home, and writing the story of his grandmother’s life. Based upon the life and letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a little known writer and illustrator of life in the American West, with the permission of the Foote family, Angle of Repose has been the subject of criticism because of it. While Stegner was allowed to draw from the letters and life of Mary Foote by her family, they asked that he disguise the source of his material, and has been criticized for using some of Foote’s letters verbatim as correspondence of the fictional Susan Ward, claiming plagiarism, while some of the Foote family objected that he took too many liberties with Mary Foote’s life in his novel.

This is the novel that brought be to the decision to read all the Pulitzer Prize winning books. Despite being well regarded in the literary community, I managed to go without having heard of Wallace Stegner until a few years ago, despite his having taught creative writing to Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Larry McMurtry, among others. When I finally began reading Angle of Repose, it made me wonder what other treasures might be buried in that list of winners. It is a story about families, about the American west, about the struggles and pains and lost dreams in lives and relationships. And the writing is fantastic. There is a passage early on, which I’ve included below, in which history is compared to the Doppler Effect, and it is a metaphor as unique and inventive as it is obvious. I would never have thought of the two things being related, but since reading the book, I can’t imagine a better comparison. I think that is one of the marks of great writing. And this book is full of great writing, despite any of the criticisms it has received over the years.

It is a novel about cultural change and upheaval. Susan Ward, artist and East Coast socialite, finds herself attempting to hold tight to a Victorian culture and create a sophisticated society around her while she follows her husband, a mining engineer, in the American west in the late 1800s, living in mining camps and frontier towns. Subsequently, her grandson Lyman, relying on others to help him organize and type the story of his grandmother, and ultimately of himself, finds himself up against the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, a history professor arrayed against a group of people Stegner thought had no need for history, and finding more of himself in his grandmother’s story decades earlier than in his own son, or in the girl working as his secretary.

But Angle of Repose is also a novel about family, and about relationships. It is about the joys and sorrows inherent in those things. It is a novel about stoic grandparents and the turmoil of emotions held underneath the surface. It is about despair and determination, and the whole gamut of human emotions, and by the time you reach the final page, you find that Stegner has scratched open the wound at the heart many peoples’ lives, the fading sound of dreams and expectations and hopes fading away, replaced with what often seems a cold and harsh reality, filled with death and disease and despair. But in scratching open that wound, he shows a glimmer of hope that perhaps exposing the wound is the first step in healing it.

Favorite passage:

There is another physical law that teases me, too: the Doppler Effect. The sound of anything coming at you–a train, say, or the future–has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics, you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between it’s arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway, who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates. But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desire blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne. I don’t find your life uninteresting, as Rodman does. I would like to hear it as it sounded while it was passing.

Why you should read it:

It’s an expertly and wonderfully written and constructed novel about the human condition, placed against the backdrop of the American West in the late 1800s, but it’s also a product of, and set in, the late 1960s, making it an interesting cultural study of both eras.

Currently reading: The Harbor by Ernest Poole (not a Pulitzer Prize winner, but I’ll explain how it fits into this project soon).


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