Books and Beyond
I thought I’d read Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” for January. I like the title, and I know there’s a movie of the book. I started with McMurtry’s “In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas” — short pieces about his life in Texas. In the first essay he tells us about the making of the movie, “Hud,” from his first novel, “Horseman, Pass By,” c 1961. In his introduction, he refers to himself as “a regionalist from an unpopular region.”
Then in one essay, he writes about Wallace Stegner speaking at the Texas Institute of Letters. Hmm. I said to myself. We have Stegner’s book “Crossing to Safety” here, and also his “Wolf Willow,” c 1962. When I found “Crossing to Safety,” on the cover page I saw that my dear friend Phebe Hanson gave me this book for my birthday in 1998. Two pages of my notes are still in “Wolf Willow.” One sentence I underlined is “I got it in my eyes like stardust … “
I changed my direction and began to read “Crossing to Safety,” a 350-page book, this one published in 1987. The title comes from a Robert Frost poem. It was Stegner’s last novel. His death in 1993 came about because of a car accident.
The book is very deep; it can’t be read fast. The time moves back and forth from 1937 to the early 1970s, and it’s basically about a long friendship between two couples. The story begins in Madison, Wis., where both husbands teach English at the University of Wisconsin. Larry Morgan (his story is similar to Wallace Stegner’s) is let go after the first year, and he then becomes an editor for a book company in the east.
Sid Lang is Larry’s friend. He is at the university for three years, but then he’s let go because our country is in World War II. Sid’s wife, Charity, is from a wealthy family, so it doesn’t matter that they live with her parents in Vermont for three years. Charity is very strong-willed. Larry’s wife, Sally, is the person who always steps in a tough conversation to tone it down and move it to a more peaceful direction.
About halfway through the book I decided to order the biography of Wallace Stegner, written by Jackson J. Benson, published in 1996. The title is “Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work.” Now and then I’d put “Crossing to Safety” down and read pages in the biography. I felt like I was writing a term paper. Usually when we read a book of fiction, we stay with that book, don’t we?
One of the aspects of the biography that made me think back to my English major was that Benson explains in his introduction why Stegner never became as well-respected a writer as say, John Updike or Eudora Welty. He explains that Stegner would have seemed old-fashioned to many readers, especially younger readers. Also, some people criticize books about the Old West because they don’t cover multicultural aspects of our society.
The biography lists 31 books that Stegner wrote: novels, short story collections, essay collections, histories, and additional non-fiction books.
Stegner was never lashing out at something going on in our country. His characters are everyday people learning how to get along during the ups and downs of life. If the main characters do that on a personal level, then they will have intelligent views about large issues in the country. Wallace Stegner, like his narrator Larry Morgan, wants to make sense out of life. He wants it to be all wonderful, but he also wants to honestly take in the negative aspects and learn from them.
A nature issue Stegner wrote about was environmentalism. One of his books was “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West,” c 1954. John Wesley Powell is well-known as an explorer of the West. He wrote “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.” The introduction to the book is by Stegner.
As I was thinking about Stegner and his books, I picked up our November 2018 National Geographic, and read the article on Northeast Vermont. Vermonters call it the “Northeast Kingdom.” This part of Vermont includes the Barr Hill Nature Trail. That is close by the land owned by Charity’s parents. (The last name of the family Stegner knew was Gray.) You can read more about this on the burlingtonfree press.com website.
For my term paper I would also tell more about “Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier.” When Stegner is a young boy, his family lives in Saskatchewan for a few years, and that’s the setting for the book. The first page says “This is in memory of my mother.” Next there’s a map the reader needs. Any page I open to pulls me into the book again.
Marshall-Lyon County Library has many Stegner titles and McMurtry titles — books and electronic resources. The next Stegner book I would read is “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” It is another novel that the biographer says is one of Stegner’s best.