I'm staying busy and preparing to head to Guatemala late this week... So for now, I just have another book review. I've listened to this book while in the gym during January.
Angle of Repose (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 569 pages (Audible narrator Mark Bramhall, 22 hours and seven minutes).
It’s the summer of 1970 in California. Lyman Ward is a divorced and retired professor. He has lost a leg to disease. He spends his days with the aid of a neighbor, going through is grandmother’s letters and using them to recreate his grandparent’s lives in the American West. Oliver, his grandfather, was a mining engineer. He married Susan, an artist and author from New York. After moving West, she continues her work while regularly writing letters to her friend in the East. With her life tied to a mining engineer, she moves all over the West and even to Mexico. The two are always hopeful, but nothing ever works out. Oliver creates a process for making cement, but doesn’t patent it and someone else develops it. He is honest about the mines he works which leads to problems in a society where many use fake reports to make a killing selling shares in worthless mines. He has a vision for a massive water project in Idaho, but loses his backing before it pays off. He trusts an attorney to file his papers for land and then learns the attorney has claimed the land for himself. His honesty and the trust he places in others leads to disappointment and after disappointment. While having a few good years, he never makes it big while Susan’s work (illustrations for books as well as articles on the West) keeps the family afloat. In time, a gap begins to break between Susan and Oliver. She is lured away by Oliver’s loyal assistant, Frank. Although she declines Frank’s offer, the rift between Susan and Oliver widens. After the accidental drowning of a child, Frank’s suicide, and more separation, the two live out their lives accepting their less than happy estate.
As Stegner bounces back and forth from the 19th Century to 1970, parallels between Lyman Ward and his Grandparents become apparent. While this is a novel about the West, it is also a novel about families and relationships. However, the West plays a role as the backdrop for the story. It’s a land of promise that often fails to live up to its hype. The Ward’s traveling from place to place in the hopes of hitting it big remind me of Bo and Elsa in Stegner’s first novel, TheBig Rock Candy Mountain which begins around the turn of the twentieth century, a few decades later than Angle of Repose (1870s-1890s). The families of both novels spend their lives jumping around over the West in an attempt to make it big. But there is a difference in the two men. Oliver is very honest, where Bo is often operating outside the law. They both find more trouble than reward in the American West.
Stegner’s prose is masterful as he captures the landscape of the West. As he did in Big Rock, he often uses the journey across country to describe the differences between the East and West. There is something about the wide-open spaces that draws his characters back to their home. Even though Susan resisted becoming a western woman, by the end of the book, she has been lured into the landscape. It may not always be a place where dreams are fulfilled, but it is a place of hope and promise.
The title has to do with an engineering concept about the angle material (such as tailings from a mine) will stabilize and not continue to roll down a slope. Stegner is able to apply this term to human relationships and it comes up numerous times within the book.
Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this novel, even though he did have its critics. For a work of fiction, he does quote letters from a woman whom he modeled Susan Ward afterwards. These letters are extensively quoted throughout the book and provide opportunities for Lyman Ward (the narrator) to speculate about what was going on in the lives of his grandparents. I enjoyed this book and do recommend it. Of course, I have spent much time studying mining camps in the West and especially in Nevada, so this book was, as some say, “right up my alley.” I listened to the book, but had a hard copy which I did some actual reading over interesting sections.