I have had good luck recently with reading older books – not quite “classics” but noteworthy in their own time, still thoroughly enjoyable and without the long library hold times of recent releases (bonus!). One example is The Secret of Santa Vittoria, which I read and reviewed earlier this year. Angle of Repose is another example. This novel with a James Bondian title won the 1972 Pulitzer, and it’s no wonder – Wallace Stegner is a true word magician. The prose in this novel is gorgeous.
In Angle of Repose, 58-year-old Lyman Ward is chronicling the life of his beloved grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, who was an accomplished writer and illustrator. Lyman is a retired historian who is confined to a wheel chair and is struggling to maintain some level of independence. Part of the story is about his situation, which also includes an estranged wife and a son whose embrace of ’60s culture has made him a puzzling disappointment to very traditional Lyman.
But most of the book is about Susan Ward, a woman who found herself an accidental pioneer of the western United States during the 1870s and 1880s. Raised as a Quaker in New York, she married a mining engineer, Oliver Ward, who bound himself to a career model that required him (and his family) to continuously move to rugged and unsettled parts of the West. This was culture shock to gently bred Susan. However, she made the most of it and became a prolific commercial writer and illustrator of her experiences. She also loyally supported her husband as they tried to carve out their place in the western frontier. The early years of their marriage was a touching love story and probably my favorite part of the book. But over time, the marriage between an educated Victorian lady and a rugged, obstinate dreamer starts to fray, as Oliver drags his family into one too many foolhardy dreams.
The character development in Angle of Repose is exceptional. Wallace Stegner shows great incite about two groups of people that can be hard to understand – the physically disabled and strong, complex women, of the Victorian era, no less.
First, let me talk about the physically disabled component, since that’s very close to home. Stegman capably represents many of the experiences and concerns of the disabled – the fight to maintain independence, the feeling of being visually off putting, the need to stay relevant and productive, having to contend with different opinions of how you should live and act. Lyman says about his vexing son and daughter-in-law, “They keep thinking of my good, in their terms. I don’t blame them, I only resist them.” He’s also very astute regarding how time passes for those not actively engaged, such as people with severe disabilities. I experienced this phenomenon when I stopped working and entered an unfamiliar world with nothing pressing on my calendar. Stegner captures that when he has Lyman say, “No life goes past so swiftly as an eventless one, no clock spins like a clock whose days are all alike.”
The other character that is so masterfully drawn is Susan Burling Ward. She is a multilayered combination of Victorian lady, successful working woman, adaptable pioneer and loyal wife. She is also a bit of a snob and some of her correspondence with her best friend, with whom she is weirdly attached, border on melodrama. Do you remember the character of Diane in the sitcom Cheers? Susan has a lot of Diane in her. But whereas Diane is mostly annoying, Susan has many qualities that balance out her Diane-ness. She’s charming and curious and rolls with the punches. When she and Oliver have a disagreement, just when you’re expecting her to scold him, she often smiles and takes his hand instead. At least, that’s what she does early in the marriage. Later, Stegner also does a fine job of portraying a woman who’s had enough of her western exile, her children growing up wild and her husband stubbornly clinging to an unrealistic and financially devastating dream.
Stegner’s wonderful writing makes these characters come alive. It also does justice to the unique beauty of the American West. In one of my favorite passages, Susan is in a moonlit canyon in Idaho waiting for her husband to return from town:
“Out of their flat shadows the poles of the corral and the trunks of the cottonwoods bulged with a magical roundness like the moon’s. As she watched, charmed, the trees below must have been touched by the canyon wind, for flakes of light glittered up at her and then were gone. But there was no sound of wind, and where she stood there was not the slightest stir in the air. The glitter of soundless light from that little picture lighted in the midst of darkness was like a shiver of the earth.”
It’s a lovely description and it actually lasts several pages. It’s mesmerizing.
Here’s something else – it’s a long book. The paperback is 672 pages. Normally with a book this length I start to get antsy around page 400 (I’m afraid my attention span has been shrinking). And at one point I wondered why the subject matter wasn’t getting tedious for me (a lot of it is domestic scenes and there isn’t much action or drama). But I didn’t get antsy and I didn’t find it tedious. I looked forward to reading it every day. The writing and storytelling skill are that good.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that I highly recommend Angle of Repose. If you like exceptional writing and tales of the old West, I think you’ll really enjoy this one.
Thanks for the recommendation, Deb. Did I get it right?