By Wallace Stegner. I read this novel back in February and loved it. It was a re-read. I’d read it years ago in the 1990s, at university. I couldn’t remember many of the details, but I did remember that I loved it even then. On re-reading, what did I enjoy? Its complexity, its ambiguity, the poetic and sometimes thrilling descriptions of nature and life on the frontier, the contrast between culture and nature, the complex human relationships, the open ending.
The novel has two levels of plot. We have the life lived by the first-person narrator, Lyman Ward, who is researching and narrating the lives of his grandparents, Oliver Ward and Susan Burling Ward. Oliver was a mining engineer and Susan a famous illustrator and novelist. They lived in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Lyman is writing in the 1970s. He’s a retired professor of History, suffering from a degenerative disorder that makes it hard for him to move or care for himself. He focuses specially on Susan, because she has left a large collection of letters. As the novel progresses, the reader learns that Lyman is interested in his grandparents’ relationship, because his own has fallen apart:
What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. Penguin, 2000, p 227
Lyman and his wife Ellen divorced after 25 years of marriage under circumstances that Lyman judged to be a horrendous betrayal (well, it was, pretty much). He very much resents her but is being pushed towards a reconciliation by his son who still has a relationship with his mother.
Oliver and Susan also had a complicated and difficult relationship and once a great crisis but remained together. As a young woman, Susan was friends with Augusta Drake and Thomas Hudson. They lived on the East coast and lived for culture. Thomas became a well-known editor and married Augusta. Lyman believes that Susan would also have liked to marry Thomas or might even have lived as one of a ménage à trois with them. But she came to know Oliver and after a long engagement they were married. Augusta and Thomas didn’t approve of Oliver, he was too uncultured for them. He also didn’t try to ingratiate himself for which there wasn’t really much opportunity as his realm as geological engineer was in the West of America. Susan and he moved from one mining camp to another, but he always tried to build nice homes for her. Susan was ambitious for him, but she also held him back, as she didn’t want to follow him to some of the more uncivilized places that might have been good to grow his career. Sometimes, Oliver was unemployed, because he had a mind of his own and had strong ethics that caused conflicts with his superiors.
Eventually, a second relationship triangle formed. Oliver collaborated a lot with his friend and colleague Frank Sargent, who flirted with and perhaps fell in love with Susan. Susan started unfavourably comparing Oliver not only with Thomas, but also with Frank. Oliver’s career stagnated while Susan, with her connections back East to Thomas, turned into a famous illustrator and novelist. Sometimes the family lived off her income. Oliver occasionally turned to drink, which Susan resented. Eventually, when they were in their forties, with three children, a boy, Ollie, and two girls, Betsy and Agnes, a tragedy happened, which was Susan’s fault, that caused Oliver to leave Susan for a couple of years and also created a break between Ollie (the son) and Susan that was apparently never completely reconciled. Ollie was Lyman’s father.
Lyman presents all this to the reader from Susan’s letters to Augusta and from some old newspaper articles. Susan, however, didn’t write anything in her letters about the crisis (which I don’t want to mention, so as not to spoil the crux of the novel for anyone), so Lyman, is basically speculating:
All I know is the what, and not all of that; the how and the why are all speculation.
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. Penguin, 2000, p 582.
Lyman was a History professor; he’s used to interpreting texts. The reader can’t be sure whether the tale he tells about Susan’s and Oliver’s motivations are any kind of truth. The letters aren’t shown to the reader, only the narrative that Lyman creates from them. And isn’t his name “lie man” kind of telling? Lyman believes that his grandparents never made up and lived next to each other for the rest of their long lives in a kind of petrified marriage. But I, as the reader, think that this may not be true. For one, Susan and Oliver may not have indulged in public displays of affection, seeing that they grew up in the 19th century. For another, I think that the rose garden that Oliver planted for Susan at the cottage that Lyman is now living in (and to which they only moved to after the crisis in their marriage) may have been a sign that he had forgiven her after all. Directly after the tragedy, before leaving for a couple of years, Oliver had destroyed an earlier rose garden in a fit of despair and rage. That’s why I think that the second half of their marriage wasn’t as loveless as Lyman seems to think.
It’s Lyman who is debating with himself if he should stay unforgiving towards his ex-wife in the same way he believes his grandparents to have remained estranged. He is pressured by his son to reconcile with his ex-wife, who had left him when he first became ill and who now, after a strange tragedy of her own, would like to see him again. It appears that, due to his analysis of his grandparents’ life (regardless of whether he is right about them, which he may well be) he has begun to question his refusal to forgive his wife. He’s wondering whether unforgiving harshness is really healthy, and whether he was a good husband during their marriage. Or maybe he thinks that a reconciliation would solve his caretaker problem – she could look after him and he could stay in his home instead of needing to move into a care facility, as his son urges him to do throughout the novel. The latter would be a rather self-serving act, which I don’t think is in character for him, but who knows? It would certainly suit his son.
I love the ambiguity of the novel. You think you know everything about Oliver and Susan, but more and more you come to see that you are only following Lyman’s interpretation of their lives. In addition to the relationship issues, I also like the novel because of the great description of nature and life in the American West. It’s not about the Wild West from cowboy movies, but about exploration and cartography and building a life in remote places. The contrast between the civilized East and untamed West is very well shown. There are also other characters and their stories that I haven’t touched on in this review, but which are also vividly realized. Have I said I love this novel? I really do and highly recommend it. I’m sure I’ll be rereading it and finding things I’ve missed. I also would like to read more of Stegner.
“Angle of repose”, by the way, is geological terminology meaning the “angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling downhill.”
Keep safe, world.