Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Wallace Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain

The NY Times has a story today commemorating the centennial of Wallace Stegner's birth. For most people, Wallace Stegner is probably the least famous award-winning author they've never heard of. Though he won the the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, his books are not easy to obtain and most students today have never heard of him or been assigned any of his books to read in class.

When I was a teenager, my father handed me Stegner's novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain. It had been one of my father's favorite books, and upon first read, it became one of mine.

It's loosely based on Stegner's life, in that the significant events of the book also happened to Stegner's family. Like the fictional Bruce Mason, Wallace Stegner was left to care for his dying mother alone after his father ran away from the situation.

Like Bruce Mason, Stegner had a father who killed himself after murdering a girlfriend.

Like Bruce Mason, Stegner was the only survivor of a family that had moved restlessly throughout the vast North American west when he was growing up.

A selection of quotes from the novel:

"The train was rocking through wide open country before Elsa was able to put off the misery of leaving and reach out for the freedom and release that were hers now."

"As August moved on day by cloudless day, they began to watch the southwest rather than the southeast. The days were hot, with light fingering winds that bent the wheat and died again, and in the evenings, there was always a flicker of heat lightening. The southwest was dangerous in August. From that direction came the hot winds, blowing for two or three days at at time, that had withered and scorched the wheat last year. They were like Chinooks, his father said, except that in summer, they were hot as hell. You couldn't predict them and you couldn't depend on their coming, but if they came you were sunk.

What a God damned country, his father said."

"This corpse was a thing you could bury without regret, put into the ground beside your brother's body and the other things, the qualities that had been mystically your mother, you buried within yourself, you became a grave for her as you were a grave for Chet, and you carried your dead unquietly within you."

Big Rock Candy Mountain paints a vivid portrait of a vanished lifestyle - the period following the close of the frontier, that era when restless Americans had to learn to live within the confines of a well-defined map. No longer could settlers carve out a new life in uncharted territories.

Yet the dreams of the drifters pushed them forward. Stegner's father spent a lifetime looking for the "land that's fair and bright," but he never found it.

Stegner wrote about that; he wrote about the west; he understood the vast yearning for independence that Americans use to propel the pursuit of happiness. Stegner also worked hard to convey the complexities of the dream.

"Perhaps that was what it meant, all of it. It was good to have been along and to have shared it. There were things he had learned that could not be taken away from him. Perhaps it took several generations to make a man, perhaps it took several combinations and re-creations of his mother's gentleness and resilience, his father's enormous energy and appetite for the new, a subtle blending of masculine and feminine, selfish and selfless, stubborn and yielding, before a proper man could be fashioned."

In Big Rock Candy Mountain, Stegner showed how unquietly his dead had lain within him, and the result is a moving novel that stays with you for a long time after you finish reading it.

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