Who wrote this book and when?
Wallace Stegner in 1971.
Has there been a film version?
Who are the main characters?
Lyman Ward – the narrator, a fifty eight year old man with a bone disease who is tackling writing a biography on his grandmother
Susan Burling Ward – Lyman’s grandmother, an artist
Oliver Ward – Lyman’s grandfather, an engineer
Ada Hawkes- Lyman’s caretaker in his secluded cabin
Shelly Rasmussen- Ada’s daughter, a Berkeley drop out who is searching for a free lifestyle
Oliver “Ollie” Ward Jr. – Lyman’s father
Frank Sargent – Oliver Sr’s apprentice
Augusta – Susan’s best friend, a part of high American society
What’s it about?
It’s the story of Susan Burling Ward, as told by her grandson, Lyman Ward. Lyman is the victim of a debilitating bone disease which is gradually solidifying his skeleton and paralyzing him. He is divorced from his wife, and estranged from his children. Now, he is setting out to write the biography of a woman he loved and admired. Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward moved to several different places in the west in their pursuit of fulfillment. The story tells of Susan’s attempt to reconcile what she believes her life should be with what it actually is. It also tells of her struggle between the three people she loved the most in the world: her husband, Frank, and Augusta.
Why is this book a classic?
This book puts the American dream into the terms of a life – and relationships – those of Susan B Ward. It not only examines the less glorious aspects of the settling of the west coast, but relates it to modern lives and struggles. All along with beautiful descriptions of the land.
Why should I read this book?
If you are going to read one of Stegner’s novels, I would suggest “Big Rock Candy Mountain” over this one. However, this is his most famous work…
Has it won any awards?
The Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
“John’s lantern shone back liquid yellow from the puddles, another lantern at the end of the landing threw a streak over the moving river that was roughened every minute or two by gusts. I suspect that Susan’s skin was like the river, chilled by gusts of uncertainty, pebbled with the gooseflesh of anticipation. She knew his intentions; he had warned her.” -p59
“Towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable.” -p73
“There were windows in the right-hand promontory through which, as the seas fell away, they saw glimpses of sunlight heaving sea and black rocks lashed with white. The sky was tumultuous with clearing, the world glittered.” -p 171
“The horse lifted his tail and dumped a bundle on the doubletree, and for a blazing unladylike second Susan felt that he had made Mrs. Elliott the only possible answer.” -p188
The title of the novel is an engineering term for the point at which rocks stop falling during an avalanche or slide. It relates to Oliver’s job as a mining engineer, but also to Susan’s struggle to find somewhere to rest as she and her family are moved all over the west coast. It defines her search to realize the life she wants and her eventual hopelessness at her situation.
I was all ready to read a wonderful book and write a wonderful review in celebration of my fiftieth book review. But unfortunately, I was disappointed. I felt guaranteed a winner with another Stegner novel, having loved “Big Rock Candy Mountain” so much. Plus, with this book being such a heralded novel and an award winner to boot – I was confident. But this novel failed to draw me in – I disliked both of the major characters to the point where I was unmotivated to read about them. It was only Oliver who kept me reading, along with Stegner’s moving descriptions of the sweeping western panorama. The parallels between Lyman’s life and the lives of his grandparents’ were unmistakeable, but I couldn’t forgive the bitterness which seemed to roil underneath Lyman’s writing and somehow fail to overflow until the end. I felt too jerked around – sometimes we are in the past with Susan, sometimes in the present with Lyman, sometimes in the past with Lyman talking about Susan and sometimes, simply reading newspaper articles. My mind was overwhelmed – which doesn’t happen often. Reading books like this and being faced with this sort of reaction to them makes me feel ashamed that I am not overwhelmed by the literary beauty of the writing and the intricacies of the relationships, themes, and archetypes. But I have to be honest, I was left feeling unfulfilled, uninformed, and wondering what the heck had just happened.