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Wallace Stegner, Crossing to safety (Review)

June 25, 2014

StegnerCrossingPenguinNearly two decades ago, I read Wallace Stegner’s Angle of repose. I loved it. Indeed, for many years I had the following quote from it on my work whiteboard: “Civilisations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations”. Not just civilisations, I thought, but marriages, teams, organisations. I like the way this man thinks. And so, when someone suggested my reading group do his last novel, Crossing to safety, I jumped at the chance. At last I could read that copy languishing on my TBR.

The tricky thing about discussing Crossing to safety is that it’s about many things – big ones like life, friendship, love, order versus chaos, and the nature of art (in its wider meaning), as well as more specific ones like academia and east-versus-west (in the US). I can only tackle a few of them in this post so will pick those, of course, that speak most to my enthusiasms. First, though, the plot.

Crossing to safety chronicles the 35-year friendship (amicitia) between two couples, which started in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1937. Charity and Sid Lang are a well-to-do couple, with two children, from the east, while Larry (who narrates the story) and Sally Morgan are a far poorer couple from the west. Both women are pregnant when the couples meet, and both men are working, on contract, in the English department of the university. The novel, though, doesn’t start with their meeting. It starts 35 years later, in 1972. Larry and Sally have been summoned, some 8 years after their last visit, to the Langs’ summer compound in Vermont, “the place where during the best times of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters”. Pretty soon we realise things are somewhat awry. Charity is “at death’s door”, hence the summons. We also learn that Sally is disabled, though since when we don’t know.

The story, then, is being told from 1972. Our narrator, Larry, is aware that:

Recollection, I have found, is usually about half-invention, and right now I realise that there is much about Sid and Charity Lang that I either invented or got secondhand.

This, together with the fact that Larry frequently comments and reflects on life, memory and art, gives the book a complexity without detracting from its being an engaging story about interesting people. Interesting? Did I say interesting?

This is not an adventure story (Larry, early in the novel)

One of the themes of the novel concerns the nature of art. Larry is a writer, so it’s not surprising that he’s interested in the creation and meaning of art. There are several discussions between the characters, as well as comments by the narrator, on the subject.

Around two-thirds through the novel Sid and Charity’s daughter Hallie asks Larry to write a novel about them. Larry demurs, pondering after the discussion:

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?

We are reminded of this a little later in the novel when the four, with their children off their hands, spend a sabbatical year in Italy, lapping up art and culture. Most people, they consider, have read Milton’s Paradise lost, but how many have read Paradise regained? Can art, they wonder, only be about “sin and suffering … the most universal human experiences”? Charity, naturally, dissents, arguing that “of course you could make great art out of happiness and goodness”. She argues that artists (including writers) found it “easier to get attention with demonstrations of treachery, malice, death, violence” but “art ought to set standards and provide models”.

This is pretty much what Stegner has done – not by creating boring paragons but by presenting characters who “made mistakes” but who “never tripped anyone up to gain an advantage”. Instead, they “jogged and panted it out the whole way”. In doing so, he explores what determines a worthy, or even just meaningful, life.

Order is the dream of man (Larry, quoting Henry Adams)

Early in the novel, Larry quotes historian Adams’ statement that “Chaos is the law of nature; order is the dream of man”. This is, I think, one of the major themes of the novel. It’s not for nothing that Charity is established as the supreme organiser. She has absolute faith – one that is never dimmed by evidence to the contrary – that “if you wanted something, you planned for it, worked for it, made it happen”. Time and again, though, Larry shows that

… you can plan all you want to … but within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe yourself fine.

And so, illness happens, jobs are lost, wars start – and the dream of man comes asunder. We could call this fate, and at times Larry does, but I think, really, Stegner is more realist than fatalist. He, through Larry, recognises “the miserable failure of the law of nature to conform to the dream of man” but this is no breast-beating “woe-is-me” novel.

de Amicitia (Cicero, alluded to by Larry)

I don’t want to end on heaviness, so let’s get to the unifying theme, or idea, of the novel – friendship. It’s a friendship built on immense generosity – of spirit and of means. Charity and Sid welcome Sally and Larry into their heart and home. They are generous when Larry has early writing successes “where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking” . They provide financial support (paid back, later, though not demanded) when polio strikes Sally. In return, Larry points Sid towards a job when Sid’s career flounders. And so on … all that you’d expect in a real friendship, in other words.

This is not to say it’s all smooth sailing. There are tensions, a serpent in Eden to use Larry’s metaphor. They are mainly caused by Charity’s unfulfilled ambitions for Sid and her over-organising nature that results, at times, in “a clash of temperament or will” that she always wins. Stegner writes some powerful scenes that, while not high drama in the big scheme of things, glue we readers to the spot. There is “painful ambiguity” in this friendship but it is underpinned by “uncomplicated love”. If you believe that’s possible, as I do, you will love this book.

How valid is the commission?

This is an unusual review for me because I’ve barely touched on aspects like the style and the structure. Both are interesting and deserve attention, but my patience with myself is running out! Early in the novel, Sid asks Larry about “that banal subject, fascinating to non-writers, of why writers write”. Are they “reporters, prophets, crazies, entertainers, preachers, judges, what” and “who appoints them?” They appoint themselves, they agree, but if so “how valid is the commission?” Good question. All I can say is that I’m glad Stegner appointed himself because he is one thoughtful, engaging writer.

Wallace Stegner
Crossing to safety
New York: Penguin Books, 1988
341pp
ISBN: 9780140133486

15 Comments leave one →
  1. readerbuzz permalink
    June 25, 2014 9:24 pm

    Brilliant review. I am filled with envy. This is how I want to write my book reviews. In contrast, my little reviews look like those of an eager seventh grader. Sigh.

    Setting aside these envious thoughts, I thank you for your review. I am trying to reread (something I’m not very good at…I’m such a shallow reader) and I named Angle of Repose as one I plan (hope?) to reread this year. Must get to that soon. Thank you.

    • June 25, 2014 9:56 pm

      Wow, that’s a really nice thing to say readerbuzz, but I will say that many of us, I think, envy other people’s reviews so take heart from that. How great that you plan to reread Angle of repose. It’s one I would be very happy to reread I reckon. I’ve recommended it to many people.

  2. Bryce permalink
    June 25, 2014 10:24 pm

    Yes, a superb review of a wonderful and complex book. As you say, it’s about so many things, there’s enough material for ten reviews all focusing on different aspects. But apart from the themes/ideas, I loved this book mainly because I loved these four people and took such pleasure in their company.

    • June 25, 2014 10:53 pm

      Oh well said, Bryce, that’s exactly it, the pleasure in the company of those people. Pretty well everyone in my group didn’t want to hurry through the book because we all wanted to savour the time spent with those people (even Charity!). And you’re right, it could take many reviews. Another issue, besides style, structure, characterisation etc, is the whole east-west issue. I do plan a small Delicious Descriptions to follow up, but I’d love to read it again and write more. Other books call though don’t they?

  3. June 28, 2014 7:38 am

    Loved this! I read the book so long ago when I was in my early 20s and I liked it but I know I missed so much. I keep thinking about rereading it as well as reading Angle of Repose which I have never read. I have been feeling in a novel rut lately and I think you just might have helped me out of it. Thanks!

    • June 28, 2014 4:36 pm

      Oh good Stefanie … I think Stegner is a great writer to get you out of a rut. He’s so readable and yet not simple. I’d happily reread both I’ve read. He also wrote a lot of nonfiction including on environmental topics I believe. Have you read those!

      • June 30, 2014 6:39 am

        I have not read his nonfiction and I had no idea he had written on environmental topics. Clearly I have some reading to do!

        • June 30, 2014 8:17 am

          Me too … I hadn’t realised until I looked him up on Wikipedia. I’d like to read some to get a feel for his wider views.

  4. piningforthewest permalink
    July 12, 2014 6:54 am

    I read this book a while ago and really didn’t like it at all. For me it was too close to reality having witnessed a very similar relationship within my own family, another Charity type who was just an abusive and self-centred bully as far as I’m concerned. I managed to get to the end of the book but it has put me off from reading anything else by the same author.

    • July 12, 2014 8:54 am

      Oh that’s a shame piningforthewest … I so love his writing. Stegner’s Charity had huge generosity too. She didn’t seem to me self-centred so much as self-assured. But I can see how our personal experiences could affect our reading of her character.

  5. August 13, 2014 3:39 pm

    It might be too late to comment, but I wanted to thank you for bringing Wallace Stegner to my attention. He is a brilliant writer and this book is the best I read for a long, long time.

    • August 13, 2014 4:48 pm

      Never too late, Gabrielle … And thanks so much for coming back to tell me/us. I think this and Angle of repose are great and am thrilled that others have discovered him through my post.

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