Aug 172012

Mary Halock Foote

They say that Angle of Repose is Wallace Stegner’s best novel. I personally like All The Little Live Things better but there is no question that “Angle of Repose” is one of the great titles in literature. In some ways, every life is a search for that angle, that place where we find some stability, some rest without struggle, a place where the ground isn’t slipping away under our feet. Interestingly, Stegner, who won awards for the novel, created unstable ground for himself as he opened himself up to charges of plagiarism and misuse of material as the book is based on the life of Mary Hallock Foote and Mr. Stegner liberally used sections from letters sometime verbatim. Putting that academic controversy aside, it’s a particularly good read or, in this case, a “good listen” as I just finished the audio version. There’s a lot of pressure to make it through a 500+ page audio book in the fourteen days our library allows but I made it with two days to spare.

Stegner is pretty good at creating the cranky middle-aged narrator. In this book, it’s Lyman Ward, a retired history professor who has suffered a disease requiring that his leg be amputated. To add insult to injury, his wife runs off with his surgeon. A cruel cut indeed. Ward retreats to his late grandparent’s home and embarks on an expedition of discovery by reviewing his grandmother’s letters, articles and novels. The story that evolves is, he says, a story of a marriage. It’s also the story that contrasts the cultures of the East and the West of the USA during the late nineteenth century.

His grandmother, Susan, is a snob—beautiful, charismatic, talented, enamored of conversation and achievement. She is platonically, or not, in love with her best friend Augusta (another Eastern snob) and her letters to Augusta make up the spine of the story for Susan ends up marrying Oliver Ward, a handsome but un-degreed mining engineer whose career will take him West to Colorado, Mexico, Idaho and California and lead Susan into a lifetime of exile from the salons of New York. As a writer/illustrator, even in exile, she finds more success than her husband who is trusting and not shrewd, but is a Westerner personified—large, tough, capable, likable with big dreams and schemes that never work out. Thus, Susan lives in frustration, never finding her angle of repose.

Angle of Repose is, as mentioned based on the life a real person. Stegner apparently lays out the story of Mary Hallock Foote, whose letters were later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, in a fairly straight line. Interspersed is the drama involving our narrator Lyman Ward, Susan’s grandson, and his own struggles to find an angle of repose relying for care on a childhood friend whose family had been employees of the Wards for three generations. Stegner is a wonderfully evocative writer and his description of his caretaker (who as a childhood friend was involved with him in pre-adolescent sexual exploration) giving him a bath is worth the price of admission.

Sadly, the book thumps and bumps to an unsatisfying ending where none of the characters find their angle of repose, where a child is drowned, love is unrequited, a lover kills himself, another child is alienated, money is lost and a promising marriage stalls out and history repeats itself with Lyman’s marriage. It’s all kind of unhappy. The rocks, pebbles and sand keep sliding down the slope.

My Victorian grandma before heading West

My own grandparents had a somewhat similar though less dramatic story. My widowed grandmother, an Eastern snob, married my grandfather who had designs on a life in the West. Thus, my grandmother was drawn in to exile on a Montana homestead, in a log house no less, where she sulked and aspired to more, writing articles for ladies magazines while my grandfather taught school in mining towns. During the war they ended up in San Francisco where my grandma earned high marks working for the Navy and enjoying life in the big city much as Susan in the Angle of Repose had enjoyed a sojourn in Mexico living the high life of the hacienda. At the end of the war my grandfather drug grandma to the bleakest part of the San Juaquin Valley where she was stuck in a two room house on a treeless plot of land while my grandpa tried to be a farmer and failed. I’m not sure they ever reached an angle of repose either.

So how does this relate to Transition? Well, it doesn’t really except in the broadest sense. It’s a story of someone used to the available amenities of life who had to transition to less favorable circumstances; where wood had to be chopped, water carried, where transportation was difficult and good manners often were forgotten. Interestingly, Susan Ward made a good adjustment to the physical hardships of the West but never reconciled herself to the loss of companionship she left behind. She thought she was better than her neighbors which made for a lonely life in Leadville, Boise and beyond. It also made for a lonely life in Wilborn, Montana and Livingston, California.

Get to know your neighbors.