ANGLE OF REPOSE
Because it is a new year doesn’t mean a reviewed book has to be new. If Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose hadn’t been the Clayton Community Library Book Club pick for January 2019, I never would have chosen it for review; sometimes we readers just get lucky.
A lot of book clubs draw the line on reading books over four-hundred pages, so it was a bit of a surprise that Stegner’s novel, all five-hundred-plus pages, was voted in as our first read of 2019. Even more of a surprise as I began reading Angle of Repose (a copy which I unexpectedly found on my own shelves), was the marginalia throughout the book. Buying a used book with such notetaking is not something I generally do. It took only about fifty pages into the book to recognize the handwriting as my own. With a bit more delving, I found I had read the book ten years earlier. The notes were botanical and geological, and not a one was literary.
Most of you who read this review will be familiar with Angle of Repose and its standing as a classic in American literature. So, instead of writing specifically of plot, action, and characters, I’m going to imagine that I’m still working in a bookstore when a customer walks in and asks for a good read. I will grab the latest edition of Angle of Repose, always in print, and unabashedly tell my customer that it is the best book I’ve read in a long time. It is such an American story: a story of East Coast vs. West Coast and the personal costs of living through the explosive development of the west in the 1800s.
Lyman Ward is an ill and wheelchair-bound retired history professor (aged 58). Recently divorced by his wife, he struggles to find his way through the turns his life has taken. Determined to write a biography of his beloved and famous artist/author grandmother, he moves into his grandparent’s long-empty home in Grass Valley, California. The year is 1970.
Lyman Ward has lived through the turbulent years of the late 1960s at the University of California, Berkeley. Now living in a home that has been modified for his disabilities, he manages with caretaking help from longtime neighbors. He gathers personal letters and professional documents relating to his grandmother’s long life and begins her story.
Lyman is most interested in his grandmother’s marriage. Susan Burling Ward, born and raised on the East Coast, unexpectedly marries a young, enthusiastic mining engineer when the man she truly loves chooses to marry her best friend. She follows her young husband Oliver Ward west, leaving behind amazed friends and colleagues. It is a rocky marriage with failed mining projects and a life of little refinement. For many years it is her illustrations and writing which support her husband’s shaky career.
The wife of a mining engineer is never an easy one and Lyman’s grandmother, on occasion, with her children in tow, moves in frustration from the mining towns of Colorado and Idaho back to the East Coast, back into the world of art and fine literature. But she always returns to her husband, to the promise of the west, to the promise of “until death do us part.” Lyman discovers things about his grandmother that both confirm suspicions he has held and surprises about hidden parts of her persona. Angle of Repose is a novel about a man writing a novel. It is as much about Lyman Ward’s life as about his grandmother’s. Stegner’s novel is enhanced by the complexity of his characters and the realities of choices made by those who believed America’s future was in the west. One of the choices made by Susan Ward was to accompany her husband to assess a mine’s value in Morelia, Mexico. As she did in other mining towns (like Leadville, CO), she sketched and wrote about her surroundings for East Coast literary magazines. These illustrations and writings supplemented her husband’s income, never substantial enough to support the Ward family.
If you love stories of the wild west, the refined east, family sagas, or layered love stories, Angle of Repose will not disappoint. Susan Ward’s character is based on the real-life writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote who was also married to a mining engineer, and I suspect the fictional Susan Ward’s writings and illustrations are matched by the words of Wallace Stegner’s novel. I would love to read an illustrated edition of Angle of Repose making use of Foote’s published illustrations.
Angle of Repose has caused me to reopen my family albums with their sepia colored past, to pause and imagine more deeply the life my grandparents and great-grandparents led. An angle of repose, a geological term, is a place of rest and not a bad place to begin a new year. – Sunny Solomon