What indefinable quality haunts the first few lines of a truly masterful, classy book? How come you sometimes know, just a few sentences in, that you have entered a safe, timeless zone, in which something magical is about to happen? Two paragraphs into Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and I had that infallible premonition of a luminous, sensitive story ahead, but I didn’t expect the quality of emotion that Stegner would be capable of bringing to his tale. I can’t remember the last time I shed so many tears over a book and just thinking about it now makes me feel ready to dissolve. Still, you know me for the intrepid literary critic I am, and I won’t let a few heart-wrenching sobs come between me and a review.
Crossing to Safety is the story of a friendship between two couples, and their entwined journeys through the divine benevolence and the bitter cruelty of life. Written from the perspective of the modern day and old age, Larry Morgan, now a successful writer, travels back to the past and the places where his life began, teaching English, grafting at stories, starting a family with his wife, Sally. When they arrive at the University of Wisconsin, they are rapidly befriended by the rich and vibrant couple, Sid and Charity Lang. It would seem that the Langs have everything – money, security, love, children, success – and it becomes apparent that they want nothing more than to share those things with the poor but talented and hopeful Morgans. Yet as their friendship deepens, so Sally and Larry notice the complexities of the Lang’s relationship. Sid’s most heartfelt desire is to be a poet, but Charity, herself the daughter of a hugely successful academic, wants Sid to have academic ambitions. Charity’s family is dominated by the matriarchal line, and Charity herself, full of energy, hungry for life, a planner and organiser and general troop-rallier, has an iron will that seeks to help those she loves by breaking them first. This is a story of love, in all its many forms, and Charity’s tendency to domineer is represented as an overflowing of determined generosity, and an obsession with ‘doing things right’. She knows Sid better than he thinks he knows himself, and her need to project him onto a course that is not of his choosing, is at the same time a form of altruistic bullying that intends to get the best out of him.
This is not a narrative of high drama, although dramatic things happen, and it is not a story of tragedy, beyond the tragedies that are stitched inevitably into the fabric of existence. It’s the story that Charity challenges Larry to write, about good human beings living a normal life in a normal community and caring about the things that ordinary people do care for – family, education, friendship. In that way it’s nothing more (and extraordinarily, richly, vibrantly) the story of a marriage that could be any marriage.
‘Their intelligence and their civilised tradition protect them from most of the temptations, indiscretions, vulgarities, and passionate errors that pester and perturb most of us. They fascinated their children because they are so decent, so gracious, so compassionate and understanding and cultivated and well-meaning. They baffle their children because in spite of all they have and are, in spite of being to most eyes an ideal couple, they are remote, unreliable, even harsh. And they have missed something and show it.
Why? Because they are who they are. Why are they so helplessly who they are? Unanswered question, perhaps unanswerable. In nearly forty years, neither has been able to change the other by so much as a punctuation mark.’
This is one of those most fascinating of marriages – a flawed one that works, with partners who fit themselves seamlessly to the fault line and hold onto it for all they are worth. Yet, inevitably, the crack will one day hurt, and when Charity is dying, it becomes apparent that her loving domination of Sid has left him no one to be without her. The scenes in which Sid faces – or finds he cannot face – Charity’s death are some of the most moving and heart-rending I think I’ve ever read. Is it really better, Larry muses, to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? If we knew what life held in store for us, would we ever be able to take the first step towards it? The event he is forced to witness makes Larry consider his own position. One of the things I loved most dearly about this book is the delicately drawn portrait of Larry’s marriage to Sally, a profoundly happy union, but a form of bondage nevertheless, for in those early days of friendship with the Langs, Sally contracts polio and is crippled. The question that Larry, the most honest and tender of narrator’s, poses to himself: can he live without Sally? is one that he never manages to answer. For of course he cannot and of course one day he must. How Larry and Sally come to terms with the blow fate deals them is never articulated but always implicit: their love for one another, and their friendship with Sid and Charity, are the lifelines that pull them through. Yet even these most wondrous and beautiful gifts will themselves become, eventually, inevitably, a source of pain. That’s the strength of this book – it pitches intense happiness and unbearable sorrow side by side and shows how they grow out of one another. It is transparent with a desire for honesty and truthfulness, properly respectful of the miracles of love, friendship and happiness, and intransigent on the measure of suffering that all lives must contain. It’s a book that ought to be required reading for all couples starting out on life, and it should be pretty high on everyone else’s reading list as well. But if you do pick it up, for heaven’s sake stock up on the tissues!
I have heard good things about Wallace Stegner, and this just confirms what I have heard. I have a couple of his books that I am looking forward to reading. Now I am really looking forward to them!
What an absolutely perfect review for a near-flawless book. I’m still trying to understand the member of the book club I belonged to years ago whose comment when we gathered to discuss it was, “I just couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t find anything I could relate to in this book.” Huh? She left me speechless.
Isn’t Stegner wonderful? Great review! I have about three books of his that I want to read because this book was so wonderful. Your comment about “intense happiness and unbearable sorrow” existing side by side seems to me a theme of his…and it reminds me also of “Disgrace” by Coetzee (have you read that?).
By the by, I have been looking for one of Stegner’s books, called On a Darkling Plan, which apparently is the only one that hasn’t been reissued. If you ever run across it in a free box or second-hand bookstore, better snatch it up!
Danielle – I’m on the lookout for more of his books now, but they’re not too easy to get hold of here – still, I can get Angle of Repose and another whose title of course now escapes me. Emily – I too am speechless at that response. How can it possibly be? It’s simply the most beautiful story of ordinary life, and I entirely agree with your assessment of it as ‘near-flawless’. LK – I’ll certainly keep my eyes peeled for that book, and lovely to find another fan of Stegner. I keep meaning to read the Coetzee but haven’t got around to it – can see I need to move that up the TBR pile, then!
Stegner wasn’t somebody who was on my radar, for some reason, and now I see that he should be! Thanks for the review — this sounds like a book I would enjoy.
Thank you very much for this wonderful post. I’ve never read Stegner’s books, but became interested when you mentioned him in a previous post. I wonder if there are any of his other titles that you’d particularly recommend to a newcomer to his work?
I love Wallace Stegner and read several of his books on a binge quite a few years ago. This was one of them, and I remember liking it but reading what you say here makes me think I wasn’t quite ready for it, that I was too young or immature (or both!) and should give it another go. Beautiful post.
Dorothy – do try him, he’s a revelation. Del – I would love to help out, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. I think we should both appeal to Diana, and to LK here. Which books of Stegner’s should Del and I read next? I do know that Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer, so I imagine that would be a good place to start….?
I’ve never heard of Stegner before but your review has made me scribble it down. Any comparison to Coetzee only enhances his appeal. (Disgrace is an emotional knockout in several ways.) I find myself inclined to be fond of those books of “small” scope, centred around a few people and how they live, rather than grand global scapes.
Angle of Repose is a beautiful but emotional read. It really resonated with me because of the locale, too (San Francisco Bay Area, where I live).
Big Rock Candy Mountain is a really good one, too. One of the best things I’ve read that examines the ridiculous notion of “the American Dream.”
Oh, yes – Angle of Repose is just wonderful. I’d like to reread that one, too! I’m starting to think that I read him way too young…
I am a huge Stegner fan.
Read his “Collected Stories’ or “Where The Bluebird Sings To The Lemonade Springs”
to get a sample ofthis literary giant.
LK, Emily, Diana and Ed – thank you so much for your recommendations. I’m certainly going to read more by this wonderful writer, and you’ve given me some great places to start – thank you!
Great review! I really enjoy Stegner, a classic, literate writer. I am trying to get my hands on a copy of a book of his that is out of print, On a Darkling Plain.
If you see it, grab it. Unless it’s rereleased, this book is extremely rare.
LK Thank you for the tip! I shall certainlylook out for that book. And while you’re here, LK, I’m thinking of you – look after yourself.
I first connected with the writings of Wallace Stegner when I was younger. I read CROSSING TO SAFETY shortly after its publication. Like Diana commented in a 2007 post, I was too unscarred by life to appreciate the fullness of his expression. Even so, the novel resonated with me, and I found myself whispering Frost’s poem to myself as life plunged on. So I chose CROSSING TO SAFETY as my book club selection these many years later. I found this great, insightful review while doing online research for my comments as moderator in a few weeks. While I remembered Stegner’s last novel as being a poignant but unsentimental story about surviving life, I’d originally missed the depth of writing skill that takes the reader into the heart of a loving marriage. The book, like a long marriage, swings and sweeps and shifts and sighs. And I think it, too, will survive.
Thanks, both to Stegner and to litlov. I’ll be back to the Reading Room, often.
Lindy – thank you very much indeed! And welcome. I adored this book and keep meaning to read something more by Stegner (although he’s hard to come by here in the UK). I hope you had a wonderful book club meeting discussing him.
I adore Stegner and am so glad enjoyed it too.
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Sometimes you discover life by accident. I remember reading Wallace Steigner’s book Crossing to Safety, in 1987. I was flying over to Scotland from Boston and someone had left it in the seat pouch. By the time we landed in Glasgow after two meals, a movie and the reading of this book, I discovered a soft side to people and the wonderous effect of Steigner writing. Now I am being asked to discuss this book at a Swayse Book Club, some 22 years later. So this pass week, I re-read it and again discovered what I love reading about complex people, unusual relationships, strange as well as good marriages, and life. Thank Errol d. Alexander
I have read both Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose. Both in my opinion are true classics (my definition being that you get something different out of it each time you read it.) I have read Crossing to Safety twice now and there are many layers I know I could reread it again in a few years and notice something entirely different. I will be reading more of his books in the future. Thank you for this review. It captures the essence of the book perfectly.
Hello, Litlove! What a pleasure to see you back at the helm! I know Stegner from Angle of Repose and understood that personal experience with polio had informed his life view, but I had no idea how personal that experience was until I read this bit of an interview about the writing of Crossing to Safety! I hope it’s not too long.
“I wrote it as sort of a memoir more for Mary [Stegner’s wife] and myself than for anything else, and I wasn’t at all sure I was ever going to publish it. Those people were our very close friends, and at the same time they had some problems which were very personal; and an honest portrait of them as honest as I could make it… But it was, really, in a way that no book of mine has ever been, an attempt to tell the absolute, unvarnished truth about other people and myself. Inevitably I found myself inventing scenes and suppressing things, and bringing things forward in order to make the story work because I guess my habits are incorrigible; but my intention, at least, was the utter, unvarnished truth… And also, I suppose, I had the mule headed notion that it ought to be possible to make books out of something less than loud sensation. I was trying to make very small noises and to make them thoughtful…”
Thank goodness for incorrigibility; the book works much more effectively than uninvented reality ever does!
Hello David! I had no idea that the book had been so autobiographical at origin. But I quite understand what Stegner means about falsification leading to a better and more unvarnished truth. I also really appreciate his comment about making something beautiful out of ‘less than loud sensation’. I applaud that too. Now you’ve made me keen to seek out more of Mr Stegner’s writings about writing. If any exist, of course. Thank you for sharing!
I read this book recently for book group and I have to say his writing was magical. I was enraptured from the beginning. I don’t know that I’ve ever loved a book more. This is a beautifully written review of a beautifully written book!
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Thank-you for a lovely, articulate review of one of my favorite titles. I re-read it recently and found myself looking out the window often, musing on the bittersweet beauty of Stegner’s prose.
Sounds really heavy. Heavy, heavy heavy. I’m emotionally exhausted from this review alone…but I must read it for my bookclub but now look forward to it with trepidation. How will I survive the extreme ups and downs and side-by-side travails and pitfalls? O, but how I look forward to accounts of fatal illness and premature death and bereavement. I’m paralyzed.
On my way out of town for New Years I stopped at my library for the fourth video of Little Dorrit so that I could finish it when I arrived back home. What I really wanted was a book on tape. So purusing the limited selection, picked up Crossing to Safety, which was familiar, as I had read and like it when I was about 40. I am now 63 and when I put the tape in, which was after my long weekend, and heard Larry describe how he awoke in this rather dismal cottage, viewed his sleeping wife and then went for a walk around the area, which he described with such love and passion,.I knew that I would enjoy this book even more this time around, and I did! I have read Angle of Respose and also very much like that one too. Stegner, in my opinion, is an underestimated writer. He writes about real people, their lives, their loves, and yes, he includes their ups and downs. His character development is excellent. Until your are ready to face certain realities of life, stay away. But please come back to him when you are ready.
Thank you for the great review and all of the insightful comments. Now I will try to find some of Stegner’s other novels.
Sid and Charity are my friends too!
Good, good review! This is one of my favorite books, but I’m Italian and it’s not easy to find Stegner’s works in the old world! Actually I found it by chance, in a second-hand bazar… It was two years ago, just two months before I moved to Canada for one year. What a perfect prelude for my stay in North America! Made me understand so many things, put others in their right place, and was a perfect memento for the whole time! Unluckily I couldn’t really find his books more easily there… But reading this review has made me eager again for on of his books… Even if I prefer finding books in old libraries, thanks Amazon for existing! And thank u for reminding me about this great discovery!
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