Monday, June 4, 2012

Angle of Repose

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)

If I was a good writer instead of a middling historian this is the kind of book I would write. Stegner uses the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a Gilded Age artist who moved out west with her engineer husband, and creates a fictional story around them. In the hands of Stegner these letters gain context and reveal a place and time in America. By layering this narrative with that of Lyman Ward, the fictional professor emeritus, and grandson of the fictionally renamed artist Susan Burling Ward, we not only get to view Susan & Co.'s lives through the prism of the early 1970s, we get a glimpse at the great character that is Lyman Ward.
      Lyman is wheelchair bound and struggling to stay out of a nursing home. His delves into his grandmother's life, submerging himself to the point where he's more involved in it than with his day to day life, as a way to prove that he's still relevant. What we end up getting is Lyman commenting both on the era around 1900 and the early 70s and their relation to each other. Lyman's assistant, the free-loving Shelley, questions the prudery and stuffiness of the Victorians. It is here when Lyman describes how foolish we are to look back in time and assume our ancestors are foolish. Where we see prudery about Vicorian sexual mores and discourse, they saw propriety. Lyman argues that the Victorians would feel that modern Americans are just as repressive and reluctant to talk about death out in the open as they were about sex.
      The story is also one of movement. Susan moves every few years from one ramshackle mining camp to another. Her husband, most of the time through no fault of his own, leaving one failed project after another in his wake. This is sharply contrasted against Lyman who literally is stuck in his grandparents' old house and doesn't want to go anywhere.
     Stegner masterfully weaves Susan Burling Ward's letters into Lyman's memories, revealing why she acted the way she did and making her a much fuller character to both the reader and to Lyman.

Rating 10/10: Brilliantly done.

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