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[360] Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner

How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? [2.3.231]

Crossing to Safety, while tracing the lives and loves of two couples, both in academia, shall have plenty room for high drama, is rather a quiet novel. It’s no The Great Gatsby, although it demonstrates immense narrative power as in latter. The story, as related by the aged Larry Morgan, who returns to Battel Pond with his wife after 40 years to bid farewell to Charity Lang, is one of marriage and friendship.

We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves. [1.5.58]

In 1938, Larry Morgan answers an ad for a teaching post in Wisconsin. By circuitous and unpredictable routes, he and his pregnant wife converge toward the midwest and meet Sidney and Charity Lang, and are at once drawn together, braided and plaited into a friendship of a lifetime. Well-established with family money, the Langs take the Morgans under their wing.

To Sally and me, focused on each other and on the problems of getting on in a tough world, it happened unexpectedly; and in all our lives it has happened so thoroughly only once. [1.7.96]

But it’s a friendship not entirely of equals: While Charity, who first embraces the Morgans with open arms and then dictates much of what ensues, makes the running in her marriage and between the couples, Larry Morgan, deprived of tenure, gains success as a writer of which only Sid can dream. All her life Charity has been demanding people’s attention, especially her subservient husband’s, to things she admires and values. Writing poetry, unfortunately, doesn’t make the list. Years after Sid achieves tenure, he’s still trying to go up a road that is blocked by his wife’s thought police.

But what memory brings back from there is not politics, or the meagerness of living on a hundred and fifty dollars a month, or even the writing I was doing, but the details of friendship—parties, picnics, walks, midnight conversations . . . [1.7.103]

With a quiet majesty, Crossing to Safety unfolds slowly and graciously, revealing the story in natural arcs. It’s really a love story, not in the sense that it explores romantic dialogues and actions, but in the sense that it explores private lives. In the guise of friendship, sustained through births, outdoor adventures, job losses, war, moving, unrealized dreams, and thwarted ambition, Stegner offers, with an uncanny sensitivity, a glimpse of the physical and emotional intimacy in marriage that go largely unspoken out of respect and loyalty. The overriding ethos of the novel is simple: What is the meaning to love? Love manifests itself in many forms here: a noble generosity, force of will, desire to manipulate, and even a conviction to protect a surviving spouse from grief. Steger writes about the challenges in life in the context of a marriage. How would a spouse feel about losing the other half? How the dying spouse will make every effort to leave love and thoughtfulness in an irrevocable manner? The novel muses on the rarity of friendship, and what quiet drama it offers is how complexity of this friendship evolves over time and fits into the context of a marriage’s domain.

335 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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32 Responses

  1. I remember reading ‘Crossing to Safety’ when it was first published and loving it. The opening pages alone hooked me. Wallace Stegner is a wonderful novelist. Have you also read ‘Angle of Repose’?

    • It was a love at first read for me too! The prose beautifully meanders through reminiscences and meditations, in the context of friendship and marriage. Crossing to safety is my first Stegner novel. I’ve got three lined up now and Angle of repose is one of them.

  2. This one is next on my TBR list! Glad to hear you enjoyed it. It seems to get raves from people even though as you say, it’s a quiet book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    • I usually fare well with books that are not plot-driven. Crossing to Safety, as quiet as it might seem, actually has many plots going on. They are reflected upon through reminiscences. It’s a beautiful book.

  3. This sounds like an absolutely wonderful book! Luckily my library has a copy so it’s next in line for the TBR pile!

  4. I listened to the audiobook version and responded to it in a similar manner. By the end of it I asked the same question as Stegner ….How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Well, it helps if it is done in such a wonderful way. Part of me hesitates to recommend it without qualifications, but I have trouble making those qualifications sound significant. Very enjoyable.

    • I think his writing and the manner with which he relays all the reminiscences and meditations really speak for the book. It’s a classic.

  5. Diametrically opposite to that which I reviewed today. interesting thoughts

  6. This has been on my list for years and I can’t really say why I haven’t read it before now. I guess I always knew it was a “quiet” novel that would take the right moment for me to enjoy. Your review has heightened my interest in reading it.

    • Wallace Stegner is a new author to me. I am surprised none of my college English classes required to read such an influential writer. There won’t be a shortage of his novels, since he wrote 28 novels and essay collections.

  7. This was a wonderful review and encapsulates the quiet majesty of this book. Crossing To Safety is one of those books you ask yourself how he was able to pull off such intensity and feeling without histrionics or false hyperbole. A beautiful read. Thanks, Matt!

    • Very well put Tom. The same question also lingered in my mind while I was reading the book. It takes so much maturity to have attained this observation and discernment of who we are in life. Many novels rely on heavy drama, of which violence, infidelity, business fraud are the most common elements, to propel the story. Stegner’s book is getting back in touch with who we are, what constitutes friendship and marriage. That is, it goes back to humanity.

  8. I really loved this book when I read it. I think it is one of my all time favorites-and you write about it so beautifully. I think I must read one of his others this year!

    • I’m excited that I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t like this book. It’s going into my all-time favorite list, meaning, it warrants a re-read.

  9. I read Crossing to Safety many years ago and I agree – a quiet novel, but lovely. I think Stegner’s ability to make thes lives of these quite ordinary characters somehow remarkable is a testament to his writing prowess.

    • The books has so many unforgivable passages that I can only mark and re-read all over again for years to come.

      • I’d had this book on my mind after reading your blog then recently a friend urged Stegner on me and I finally gave in. Not sure what my reluctance was about; maybe fearing he was an old fashioned, stodgy, writer who’d bore me to death extolling about the flora and fauna in the west? Well, whatever the reason I’m so happy I read this book. It was old-fashioned in its quiet way, but so wise, warm, beautifully written. it’s not easy to stay with a first person point of view and hang on every word, image, sentence, sentiment, etc. But I did. And I especially his small tweaking of post modernism when Larry tells us what one would usually expect to find complicating a novel such as this . . . and how all that stuff won’t happen, e.g., love affairs, adultery, etc. But what does happen is powerful enough. The portrait of a marriage, Sid and Charity’s, was brilliant. I’ve lived in New England and he captured a New England clan frighteningly well. If I wanted more I’d have asked for a bit more about Larry and Sally’s marriage. Larry skirts some of the obvious questions and seems aware he’s skirting them . . . but someone once told me regarding a story I’d written that it was very ambitious and works of fiction that are ambitious are by definition never quite perfect.

  10. I purchased a copy of Crossing to Safety a few months ago and am very much looking forward to reading it. It’ll be my first Stegner, and it sounds like a book I’ll enjoy.

  11. Beautiful writing, quiet pulchritude, the book is quiet but not slow. It meanders through reminiscences and reflections while telling story of a friendship of a lifetime.

  12. […] [360] Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner […]

  13. […] how profusely I have enjoyed Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, and that I have yet to find a copy, a friend has given me Angle of Repose. The 1972 Pulitzer […]

  14. […] New Year’s Eve for the full list.) A Moveable feast Ernest Hemingway Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel Crossing to Safety Wallace […]

  15. […] Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner. I fell in love with Stegner’s lyrically contemplative and quietly majestic prose before I did with the story. It unfolds slowly and graciously, revealing the story in natural arcs. It’s really a love story, not in the sense that it explores romantic dialogues and actions, but in the sense that it explores private lives. […]

  16. […] Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner. I fell in love with Stegner’s lyrically contemplative and quietly majestic prose before I did with the story. It unfolds slowly and graciously, revealing the story in natural arcs. It’s really a love story, not in the sense that it explores romantic dialogues and actions, but in the sense that it explores private lives. […]

  17. […] should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is such a book for me last year. Stoner is no less remarkable in both writing and story. It’s […]

  18. […] Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. I fell in love with Stegner’s lyrically contemplative and quietly majestic prose before I did with the story. It unfolds slowly and graciously, revealing the story in natural arcs. It’s really a love story, not in the sense that it explores romantic dialogues and actions, but in the sense that it explores private lives. […]

  19. […] Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. I fell in love with Stegner’s lyrically contemplative and quietly majestic prose before I did with the story. It unfolds slowly and graciously, revealing the story in natural arcs. It’s really a love story, not in the sense that it explores romantic dialogues and actions, but in the sense that it explores private lives. […]

  20. […] Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro 16. Stoner, John Williams 17. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner 18. The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell 19. Emily, Alone, Stewart […]

  21. […] Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro 16. Stoner, John Williams 17. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner 18. The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell 19. Emily, Alone, Stewart […]

  22. […] Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro 16. Stoner, John Williams 17. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner 18. The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell 19. Emily, Alone, Stewart […]

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