'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.
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After setting the scene, Larry circles back to the 1930s, when the two families met, and then works his way back to the novel's present, 1972. The circular structure is significant, for as Stegner writes, "In fact, if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here [at Battell Pond] than in most places, you could really believe that time is circular, and not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving." What does Stegner mean by this? He pans out for a broader, more expansive view that reflects his deep connection with the natural world, which fueled his passionate, early championing of environmentalism: "Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras... Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and the present can hardly be told from past." Readers may recognize a shared sensibility with Jim Crace's "Being Dead," which chronicles in luminous prose what happens to the bodies of a middle-aged married couple murdered on a beach just as they are reconnecting with their old passion for each other. Crace's unusual narrative is very different from Stegner's but still highly recommended for another stirring yet quiet read grounded in an appreciation for nature.Skip to next paragraph
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So many of Stegner's lines invite discussion, and so many of the narrator's remembered events, occurring "at a time in our lives when the smallest pebble on the track could derail us," were pivotal: "I never heard of anybody's life but ours being changed by a dinner party," he writes. As for young promise: "Talent lies around us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just as gifted as others, are less lucky. Fate never drops a match on them.
Of course there is a snake in the grass in this luxuriantly evoked Eden – or rather, several. One is the polio virus that attacks Sally. More troubling, the Langs' marital dynamic creates disturbances which ripple out and threaten to swamp them all. Sid's need for "direction and reassurance" and Charity's compulsion to take charge result in a level of henpecking that becomes increasingly uncomfortable for the Morgans. When the Langs' daughter urges Larry to write about her parents, hoping he can explain their warped relationship and why they have stayed together, he responds that writers "don't understand any more than other people. They invent only plots they can resolve. They ask the questions they can answer." We readers are of course shaking our heads – for in "Crossing to Safety" Stegner has raised numerous questions not just about the Langs' marriage, but about loyalty, love, and the most beautiful sort of longterm caring – questions without easy answers.
Part of the wonder of this book is the high level of dramatic tension Stegner manages to render from essentially quiet lives. Compared to the reams written about romantic or family relationships, surprisingly little ink has been spilled about lifelong, life-changing friendships. Alice Mattison's "When We Argued All Night" is a recently published novel about friends whose close connection mutates and endures through decades of political upheavals. I'd be interested to hear from readers about some of their favorite books that involve going the distance – crossing to safety – with old comrades and kindred spirits.