Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety was recommended to me by the lovely Andrea, and was purchased as my second #TBR20 reward. Before I began, I had no real idea as to what the novel was about, but I am so thankful that it was recommended to me, and just in time for American Literature Month too.
Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his novel Angle of Repose, and I for one am so surprised that he isn’t better known or more widely read – here in the United Kingdom, at least. Crossing to Safety is his final novel, published in 1987, when he was 78 years old. It has been heralded by The Washington Post as ‘a magnificently crafted story… brimming with wisdom’.
Crossing to Safety centres around two young couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, who meet one another during the Great Depression. The husbands both work within the English Department at the University of Wisconsin, and the wives are both pregnant. They forge a lifelong friendship with one another almost immediately. This ‘becomes increasingly complex as they share decades of love, loyalty, vulnerability and conflict’. It is, says its blurb, ‘a beautiful and deeply moving exploration of the struggle of four people to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life’.
The novel is largely told from the perspective of Larry, who is looking back upon the pasts of both couples in the summer of 1972. Larry and Sally have returned to the Langs’ cottage because Charity is ‘at death’s door’. We are given a picture of the past dependency the couples have shared with one another in the following speech of Sally’s: ‘”They’re the only family we’ve ever had. Our lives would have been totally different and a lot harder without them… Except for Charity I wouldn’t be alive. I wouldn’t have wanted to be”‘. Stegner has rather cleverly included a thread of omniscient narrative too, which loses none of the pull or interest which Larry’s voice holds.
The opening passage which Stegner crafts is beguiling: ‘Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake’. The descriptions which he provides of the natural world bring it immediately to life, and he uses personification marvellously: ‘I ignore the Ridge House road and choose instead the narrow dirt road that climbs around the hill to the right… It is a road I have walked hundreds of times, a lovely lost tunnel through the trees, busy this morning with birds and little shy rustling things, my favourite road anywhere’, and ‘Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down’. So much thought has been put into every element of Crossing to Safety, from the fresh and striking dialogue exchanges to the deftly crafted characters who are brought to life as three-dimensional beings beneath Stegner’s pen.
The Penguin Classics Edition which I read is introduced by Jane Smiley, herself a recipient of the Pulitzer. Smiley terms Stegner the ‘anti-Henry James’, as he places much interest into such things as ‘how towns are founded ad built, how leisure and culture are supported and paid for, how wealth is made, and how people retain their human complexity in the most primitive conditions’. She goes on to write that the novel ‘takes as one of its central subjects the nature of long-term marriage… it explores two marriages in the twentieth-century mould, one without money and one with money… it is more the complex depiction, sometimes light but often dark, of the multiple compromises involved in three marriages – that of the Morgans, that of the Langs, and that between the Morgans and the Langs’. To Smiley, the Langs ‘personify old money and new’, and the Morgans ‘personify self-help’.
There is so much within Crossing to Safety to admire; the novel is incredibly intelligent, and full to the brim with both beautiful quotes and profundity. If you do nothing else today, please go and seek out a copy of this novel, and then join me in thanking Andrea.