Another long forgotten but fabulous novel is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner from 1987. We meet two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, life-long loyal friends, soul mates, occasional competitors and mutual supporters. If you’re in the mood for a contemplative, tightly and exquisitely written novel, reach for Crossing to Safety.
The writing is brimming with detail and atmosphere. I wouldn’t call it action packed, even the author himself raises the question: ‘How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?’ But Stegner succeeds, and with all the wisdom of a life lived (he was 78 at the time) he creates a timeless and convincing classic.
The story is told by an ageing Larry looking back and, early on, he raises the question of his reliability as narrator: ‘Recollection, I have found, is usually about half invention, and right now I realize that there is much about Sid and Charity Lang that I either invented or got secondhand.’ Not only that. Larry is an author of fiction, a creator of stories. Every story is told from someone’s perspective, Larry seems to be saying, don’t trust this to be the only version.
Larry and Sid meet through their jobs as lecturers at the University of Wisconsin’s English department, their newly pregnant wives hit it off immediately. The Morgans, struggling to make ends meet, are flattered by the well-to-do and glamorous Langs’ interest in them. Their social differences linger in the background throughout, as does Charity’s controlling personality, a constant threat to the stability of her marriage and the relationship with the Morgans. ‘The serpent’, as Larry calls it, in their ‘Garden of Eden’ of friendship.
Charity, in the words of her daughter Hallie, ‘is like a choreographer, every little step is plotted out.’ Her orchestration of everything: family life, holidays, Sid’s career, at times, the Morgan’s life, and even her own death, all done with the best of intentions, takes its toll on the people around her.
Despite ‘the serpent’, their friendship is lasting and deep-rooted, helped along by a great deal of generosity and tolerance. And I guess that’s what Stegner wants us to reflect upon, the nature of friendship and marriage, the sacrifices as well as the rewards.
For me, Stegner’s description of atmosphere is his definitive strength. Be it the tension aboard a capsizing sailboat, around a barbeque gone wrong or the peace of a solitary early morning walk through a dewy forest, Stegner makes us feel present.
Dew has soaked everything. I could wash my hands in the ferns, and when I pick a leaf off a maple branch I get a shower on my head and shoulders. Through the hardwoods along the foot of the hill, through the belt of cedars where the ground is swampy with springs, through the spruce and balsam of the steep pitch, I go alertly, feasting my eyes. […] Then I come out on the shoulder of the hill, and there is the whole sky, immense and full of light that has drowned the stars. Its edges are piled with hills. Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down.
Through Charity’s family compound where both couples spend many of their summers, we get a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the intellectual American upper classes. Scholars and professors coming and going, loud discussions long into the night, all presided over by the formidable Aunt Emily, Charity’s mother, and later by Charity herself.
The more I read, the more I appreciate the tightly edited (or did authors back then simply have more self-discipline?) books of the past century, of which Crossing to Safety is a very good example. I wish more of today’s authors and editors would follow suit. Less is often more.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner published by Penguin Books, 327 pages.