Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Crossing to Safety

My favorite writer of all time is Wallace Stegner (I apologize to those of you who have heard me carry on about him before but the man's a genius) and while I've read this particular novel before I figured it was time for a re-read. The best books always bear repeating.

What makes this novel so good? You mean besides the prose so smooth you feel as if you're floating down a river with the sun shining down? Or the characters drawn so masterfully you can hear the distinctions in their dialog? Or the themes that, while eternal, are so modern, thoughtful and resonant that you find yourself nodding your head as you read?

Stegner grew up in Saskatchewan but lived in various places in the central United States (Salt Lake City, for example) and the land plays a central role in his stories. He also follows the themes of family and marriage, love and unity, pride and failure in a way that convinces me he's the greatest contemporary writer of all time. I'd stretch it to say greatest writer ever but it's not fair to put Milton and Shakespeare and Tolstoy up against Stegner. Because they'd lose.

Anyway, Crossing to Safety is one of his later books which is the story of a friendship between two couples: the Morgans and the Langs. The Morgans have no family, no money but lots of hope and promise and the Langs are old money, New England aristocracy and an uneasy marriage struggling to find equilibrium.

It follows their story as a flashback, the two couples have come together again at the end of the journey when Charity Lang is dying and she's summoned her friends to her side in her final days. Larry Morgan, now a successful writer, tells the story of their lives together from the time they met while teaching college in Wisconsin during the Depression to their lives during the war and raising their families to the eventual end of the road.

Stegner talks about life at the university and that old "publish or perish" dogma that haunts the men of the story, the process of writing and publishing along with talent and hard work, the roles in marriage and of men and women and through it all he describes the fascinating interplay of characters and personalities without condemnation but with thought and sincerity. He builds these two couples until you feel as if you know them intimately and love them both though if I had to confess the person I love intensely is Stegner. If I could pick anyone on the planet I'd rather have an evening of conversation with it would be that man. Did I mention he taught at Stanford for years, building up their creative writing program with such genius that it's the program most others across the country are now modeled on? Yes I'm definitely a groupie. It's unfortunate that he died back in 1993 because I'd be his official stalker.

I could give you example after example of his beautiful words but rather than overload you I'll give you just a sample:

And so, by circuitous and unpredictable routes, we converged toward midcontinent and met in Madison, and are at once drawn together, braided and plaited into friendship. It is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare. To Sally and me, focused on each other and on the problems of getting on in a rough world, it happened unexpectedly; and in all our lives it has happened so thoroughly only once.

We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull and made moons of us and fixed us in orbit around themselves.
Oh to write like that. Viva la Stegner!


Congratulations to Giovanna from Cambridge, Massachusetts for winning this weekend's Beau-Coup giveaway, and also to Faith in Malibu, California for winning last weekend's FLOR giveaway. Prizes, prizes, prizes!

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CWDkids said...

I also loved his book Angle of Repose!

Thanks for making me think of this fabulous author again.

Ashley, with CWDkids

Heart2Heart said...


I love how well he articulates his thoughts through simple words threaded together to form a song of sorts.

Great writer and if we were more like him we would be enjoying our lives as stay at home moms who write for a living.

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Momish said...

Thanks Michelle, I am always looking for good books to read and will add this to my list. Totally my kind of read!

Ginna said...

I just discovered Stegner about a year ago, and what a blessing. He is certainly my favorite author, and Crossing to Safety I think is his best. I wish he had written more.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Thank you for such an intriguing review. I am always looking for another good read!

JENNIFER said...

SIGH...nobody writes like Wallace....yet another reason we should have lunch someday :)

Hairline Fracture said...

Once again you've convinced me to try something. :-) I can't believe I haven't read him before, but am putting this book on my to-read list.

BONNIE K said...

I must try this. It sounds wonderful.

ChefDruck said...

I've never read Stegner, but I'll put in a request on paperback swap right now. I loved that you included a quote in your review. It really gave a great taste of his beautiful prose.

jubilee said...

Can't wait to read this! Thanks.

Sheila (bookjourney) said...

This looks wonderful - I have never heard of this author.... I feel like I should have.

Great post.

beth - total mom haircut said...

I loved Crossing to Safety. It was the first book I read after Sam was born, essentially after becoming a mom, and that put an interesting spin on it. I've always meant to go back and read it again some day now that things are a bit more normal:) I also should check out some of his other works, I suppose... any suggestions on where to go next?

Scribbit said...

Well Angle of Repose is wonderful, one of my all-time favorites and it won the Pulitzer but it's really long, an epic. I'm re-reading The Spectator Bird and would highly recommend that one. Big Rock Candy Mountain is good but also hefty and a little slower moving (I think).

Recapitulation is also another I'd recommend. Then there's Woman on the Wall and his collection of short stories or even his nonfiction which is interesting.

Johanna said...

I know Milton and Shakespeare are great classic writers. Honestly where would we be without them? With that said I would go so far to categorize Stegner among the greats. I love his style of writing. Angle of Repose is listed as one of my top ten best reads. I have my father-n-law to thank.

charrette said...

i've read it twice, too and loved to both times. One of my all time favorites. I've recommended to about a zillion people over the past twenty years. I know Angle of Repose is supposed to be his masterpiece, but Crossing to Safety has more heart.

planetnomad said...

This is one of my all-time favorite books! It's one to read and re-read. I love, too, his description of friendship.