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'Crossing to Safety': Wallace Stegner's poignant classic turns 25

Wallace Stegner's novel about a decades-long friendship between two couples is just as rewarding on its 25th anniversary as it was when first published.

December 7, 2012

Crossing to Safety By Wallace Stegner Random House 368 pp.

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Reviewed by Heller McAlpin for Barnes & Noble Review

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It's a good time of year to lose yourself in an absorbing, transportive story that has nothing topical, tropical, stormy, or smarmy about it. Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) may be better known for his 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winner, "Angle of Repose," but it's his last novel, "Crossing to Safety," which quietly celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, that keeps drawing me back. This is the kind of book – the apt first selection for Will Schwalbe's "The End of Your Life Book Club,"  by the way – that reminds you why reading is such a wonderful solace and escape.

Achingly poignant and nostalgia-steeped, "Crossing to Safety" is about a close friendship between two couples that spans some forty years, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. Taking its title from a line from Robert Frost's poem, "I Could Give All to Time,"  the novel's concerns are the inexorable passage of time and inevitable loss, but also what one holds onto – "The things forbidden that while the Customs slept I have crossed to Safety with" – most notably, memories (both heartwarming and difficult), and love.  

The two couples meet during the Depression on a college campus in Madison, Wisconsin, where both men – one a wealthy but middling would-be poet, the other a dirt-poor but highly talented aspiring novelist – are happy to have landed hard-to-come-by academic jobs as instructors in the English department. Their pregnant wives hit it off, and the exuberant, dazzling wealthier couple, Charity and Sid Lang, take Sally and Larry Morgan under their munificent wings, helping them out repeatedly in times of trouble, and exposing them to a world they never knew existed.

The beating heart of that world is Battell Pond, the Lang's "discreet and understated" family compound in Vermont, like something "out of a Hudson River School painting, uniting the philosophical-contemplative with the pastoral-picturesque." It is the antithesis of a trophy property, where even conveniences as basic as telephones are eschewed with a self-imposed austerity. Stegner nails the "simplicity expensively purchased and self-consciously cherished, a naturalness as artificial as the Petite Trianon" that characterize such enclaves of Old Money, rich in simple pleasures. But, as in Poussin's 17th-century pastoral painting, even in Arcadia, there is death. 

Stegner's alter-ego novelist, Larry, narrates the story of this lifelong friendship, which is not without its tensions. The novel opens with the Morgans' return to Battell Pond after what we learn is an eight-year absence. The time is August, 1972, and Larry, whose successful literary career has more than fulfilled expectations, is now 64. He and his wife, long hobbled in body but not spirit by polio, have been summoned back from their retirement home in New Mexico to "the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness had its headquarters."

They have come, despite the hardship of the trip for Sally with her cumbersome leg-braces and crutches, because their dear, imperious, generous, captivating, and exasperating friend Charity is dying of cancer. Entirely in character, she wants to stage her exit with the same rigorous control with which she organized picnics, her husband's disappointing career, her children's lives, and everything else. (The couples' offspring, by the way, are conveniently peripheral through much of the action, left with caregivers for stretches of time likely to astonish modern-day sensibilities.)  

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