Sunday, September 26, 2010

Crossing to Safety
Crossing to Safety

by Wallace Stegner

"There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters."

Crossing to Safety is a meditation on the idealism and spirit of youth, when the world is full of promise, and on the blows and compromises life inevitably inflicts. Two couples meet during the Depression years in Madison, Wis., and become devoted friends despite differences in upbringing and social status. Hard work, hope and the will to succeed as a writer motivate the penurious narrator Larry Morgan (this seems to be a theme for Stegner's male protagonists) and his wife Sally as he begins a term teaching at the university. Equally excited by their opportunities are Sid Lang, another junior man in the English department, and his wife Charity. They are fortune's children, favored with intelligence, breeding and money. Taken into the Langs' nourishing and generous embrace, the Morgans have many reasons for gratitude over the years, especially when Sally is afflicted with polio and the Langs provide financial as well as moral support. During visits at the Langs' summer home on Battell Pond in Vermont and later sharing a year in Florence, the couples feel that they are "four in Eden." Yet the Morgans observe the stresses in their friends' marriage as headstrong, insufferably well-organized Charity tries to bully the passive Sid into a more aggressive mold. Charity is one of the most vivid characters in fiction; if she is arrogant, she is also kindhearted, enthusiastic, stalwart and brave. Her incandescent personality is both the dominant force and the source of strain in the enduring friendship. Stegner is superb at expressing a sense of place, and his intelligent voice makes interesting observations on American society in the decades of his setting. But most importantly, he speaks to us of universal questions, reflecting on "the miserable failure of the law of nature to conform to the dream of man."

I remember this as a 'road' book in the sense that the story seemed to move from place to place as the action progressed. An early location is Madison, Wisconsin, but since it is set in the depression it does not resemble the Madison I remember from my days at the University in the late sixties. Despite the evident hard work of the author who tried to bring motion into his meditative work and his beautiful writing, I did not really connect with the characters and their relationships.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Penguin Books, New York. 1990 (1987)

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