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[534] Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner


” That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken. He was premature. His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn’t been built, beside tracks that might never be laid. Like many another Western pioneer, he had heard the clock of history strike, and counted the strokes wrong. Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality. ” (Part Vii, Ch.3, p.382)

Angle of Repose is an intense portrayal of the lives of Susan and Oliver Ward in late 19th century and Lyman Ward in the 1960s. Lyman is a retired historian who is dying of a bone disease. Confined to his wheelchair and estranged from his family, the old man researches his grandparents’ lives—almost a hundred years ago—in order to find out why they were alienated in their later years. Through the letters of his grandmother, Susan Burling, written to her lifelong friend Augusta, Lyman pieces together Susan’s life in the late 19th century America.

She was a factory—a lonely factory, depressed, bravely industrious, afflicted with worry and insomnia, perhaps a little poisoned with self-pity. Yet she stayed away. (Part VIII, Ch.1, p.461)

Susan has been a successful artist and writer from the East Coast. She marries mining engineer Oliver ward, who dedicates himself first to mining and later to irrigation projects. She follows her husband to the West with a romantic deception that it’s a transience. Things are not as uncivilized as she thought, but nothing like back home. A pioneer at heart, Oliver chases after dreams that never quite pan out until his later years. Susan moves with him to the America West, from California to Colorado, Mexico, and then Idaho. She captures the rugged beauty of 19th century western America in her work, while struggling to maintain a marriage and a family under difficult conditions. She is conceited and snobbish, and he handy, unromantic, but endowed with sensibility.

Miserable, both of them, everything hopeful in them run down, everything joyous smothered under poverty and failure. My impulse, and I hereby yield to it, is to skip it all, to document not one single miserable hour until a day in November 1888. (Part VII, Ch.6, p.432)

While he chronicles his grandparents’ days spent carving civilization into the surface of America’s western frontier, Lyman also comes to terms with his own troubled life. A family tragedy that Stegner fully reveals at the end of the book has lessons for Lyman’s own estrangement from his own wife. Although the stories of Susan and Lyman are separated by two generations, they are woven together remarkably well. Susan reveals in letters to her friends that she is trapped in a life of failure, and that she wants to disengage from the stubborn, articulate man she is married to, and the scheme he was married to. Likewise, Lyman has trouble coming to terms with the emotional and physical aspects of his handicaps.

At its heart Angle of Repose is about personal endurance and self-discovery. Despite the beautiful rendition of the prose and the perfect capture of the Western frontier, this book is very hefty that the reading might call for patience. The novel is too long–there is far too much down time—sometimes the plot appears to repeat itself. The novel also seems too hurried toward the end: Stegner has spent so much time drawing out the first 15 years of Susan and Oliver Ward’s marriage that the remaining 40 some years, which are crucial to their alienation, are dealt with summarily. I have no doubt this book shall be added to the canon of great American literature, but because it might not be for everyone, I am leery of recommending it.

569 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

5 Responses

  1. […] [534] Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner […]

  2. I loved Crossing to Safety and have been looking forward to this one. I’ll now approach it with a little more caution!

  3. I read this book in a very plain cover borrowed from a small Canadian library and so with no idea at all that it was among The Great American Novels or indeed even of when it was published! I know I found the ‘historical’ segments a deal more compelling than the ‘present’ sections – and those are the parts I remember most clearly; the descriptions of the mining towns and life on the frontier. I think you’re quite right about it getting a bit rushed at the end. It’s almost as if it should have been one of those great three volume epics of family history…
    (Also I had no idea it had been made into an opera. That I would like to have seen.)

  4. I have this in my piles to read. I’m still interested! 🙂 thanks for the great review.

  5. Sorry to hear that this one isn’t a “Buy” but I still have it on my list because of his connection to the Bay Area.

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