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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]