Crossing to Safety

“In fiction, I think we should have no agenda but to tell the truth.” – Wallace Stegner

Thank you to my friend and colleague Christina Carson for pointing me to the literary genius of Wallace Stegner, both author and environmentalist.

He’s known for his dedication in writing about the preservation of the West of the United States, but my introduction to him came from reading his novel, Crossing to Safety. I’ve already ordered his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose because I’m enamored of this gentle man’s prose and honesty in the telling of a compelling story. Isn’t that the standard to which all authors should aspire? I know it’s what I wish for myself.

From the very beginning, he drew me into his story as the narrator, Larry, and his wife, Sally awaken in a cabin in the woods of Vermont in 1972. There’s to be a meeting of some significance between their old friends, Sid and Charity, who own the property where they now find themselves.

From there, Stegner takes the reader on a journey back to the 1930s during the dark days of Depression when the two couples meet in Madison, both as young and eager professors and their wives, at the University of Wisconsin. The plot may not be filled with dark twists and turns. It doesn’t matter. The characters come alive under the lively pen of the author. Charity in particular fills the pages and overflows onto the margins and binding of the book. Her speech and her actions show us in absolute clarity that she is the queen–sometimes overbearing, but always with a heart firmly in front–of this foursome. Here’s Stegner first description of Charity when he steps into his small basement apartment:

“In the dim apartment she blazed. Her hair was drawn back in a bun, as if to clear her face for expression, and everything in the face smiled–lips, teeth, cheeks, eyes.”

Charity lives beyond this first impression. Sid, her husband, pales in comparison, except when Stegner describes his physicality, which resembles that of an ancient Greek god. Larry, the narrator, provides us the view of everyone else, although he remains an enigma through most of the novel. However, it is always clear his opinion of his best friend, Sid, and his controlling, yet caring, wife Charity. Perhaps it is Larry’s love of his wife Sally that tells the reader the most of his character. Sally, a victim of the vicious polio, remains the stalwart and force behind Larry despite her challenges. She’s my hero of the novel much more so than the dominant Charity.

Characterization stands as one of the most important aspects of literary fiction because without it the reader has no reason to continue reading, no glue to keep them stuck to the plot. However, the descriptive prose of Stegner kept me attached to the story as much as the compelling characters. His love of nature shines through the story. At times, I stopped reading just to absorb the beauty and clarity of his descriptions, as shown in this description of the Vermont woods, as Larry, Sid, and their pack-horse Wizard make their way to a camp on their first day of a week-long hike.

“Dust has whitened the ferns along the roadside, gypsy moths have built their tents in the chokecherry bushes, the meadow on the left is yellow with goldenrod, ice-blue with asters, stalky with mullein, rough with young spruce. Everything taller than the grass is snagged with the white fluff of milkweed. On the other side is a level hayfield, green from a second cutting. The woods at the far edge rise in a solid wall. In the yard of an empty farmhouse we sample apples off a gnarled tree. Worms in every one. But Wizard finds them refreshing, and blubbers cider as he walks.”

This example shows that descriptive prose need be neither showy or pushy to paint a portrait for the reader. In its simplicity, I floated above the scene taking in every detail, including the foam sputtering from the mouth of Wizard.

I am a fan left wondering how I missed reading Wallace Stegner before now. In his sixty-year career, he wrote thirty books, both fiction and nonfiction. Edward Abbey claimed, before Stegner’s death in 1993, that he was “the only living American writer worthy of the Nobel.” He never received the honor, but he does receive my highest praise for achieving what I only aspire to do as an environmental author of outstanding fiction.

Click here to purchase Crossing to Safety on Amazon.


Cross Creek Sojourn

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

Cross Creek was immortalized in the movie of the same name  in 1983. The small village exists on the banks of Orange Lake in North Florida amid the hanging Spanish moss and spirits of those who once called the Creek their home.

Two women whose photographs grace a hallway in the capitol building in Tallahassee in the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame  for their innovative achievements in Florida’s history, both lived there in the 1930s and ’40s.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings  and Dessie Smith Prescott, despite differences in background and personality, became friends. Rawlings immortalized that friendship in her book Cross Creek in the essay, “Hyacinth Drift.”

While Rawlings died before I was born, I had the privilege of interviewing Prescott several months before her death in 2002. The occasion was her 95th birthday, and I was on assignment for a magazine. I arrived at her home on the Withlacoochee River near Crystal River just before the big birthday bash to chat with Prescott, who was the first female licensed wilderness guide and first licensed female pilot in Florida.

One of her friends, Hutch Hutchinson, said at the party, “Even if Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings hadn’t been born, Dessie would be famous in her own right.”

Prescott married six times, with the sixth marriage lasting 26 years and the only marriage to make her a widow.

“If the person didn’t fit in with my life,” she told me, “I decided the best thing to do was to give them their freedom. I paid for all my divorces.

“I enjoyed them all [husbands] for a time,” she said.

Prescott met Rawlings after a neighbor came to the rugged outdoorswoman and asked her to visit a new couple who had recently moved onto an orange grove near Cross Creek. Prescott’s friend predicted that without help the Rawlings might starve to death.

“The grove had been neglected for years,” Prescott said. “Groves take about twice as long to bring back as you’ve neglected them, and they hadn’t got a chicken or pig or anything on the whole place.”

So Prescott visited the house in Cross Creek where Rawlings wrote her Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Yearling  and took Marjorie under her wing. Despite being ten years younger than Rawlings, Prescott took to calling her “young un” because “she didn’t know anything about anything that I did.”

When Rawlings’ marriage began falling apart, Prescott suggested the two take a trip on the St. Johns River from its beginnings in Volusia County up to the Ocklawaha.

“Hyacinth Drift” begins with “Once I lost touch with the Creek …I talked morosely with my friend Dessie. I do not think she understood my torment, for she is simple and direct and completely adjusted to all living. She knew only that a friend was in trouble.”

Prescott summed up the differences between the two women in an interview with Florida Magazine in 1995. “I always said Marge could describe a magnolia and I could smell it. She was that good.”

During the trip, Prescott and Rawlings encountered men who were amazed at the audacity of two women traveling the river without accompaniment, but they paid little attention. They came upon Sanford on a Sunday morning, and Prescott prepared for the place where large-vessel traffic on the St. Johns stopped.

Rawlings writes, “Dess strapped around her waist the leather belt that held her Bowie knife at one hip and her revolver at the other, and felt better prepared for Sanford than if we had been clean.”

The trip helped Rawlings settle her mind, and she returned to Cross Creek ready to end her marriage knowing the Creek had come to own her.

I myself returned to Rawlings’ home in Cross Creek  on a February morning several years ago. The birds sang from atop the orange trees laden with ripe fruit. The frosts of February had not damaged the crop of the  few trees still growing in the yard.

I walked to the front porch and sat on the steps because the house was not open to visitors on this sunny morning. I sat within feet of the typewriter that still rests on the round oak table on the porch. It’s easy to imagine how Rawlings wrote magic in this setting that is still relatively untouched by the conveyances of modern life more than sixty years after she typed Cross Creek, The Yearling and South Moon Under.

No wonder those pieces read like a song with the birds providing a musical score on which her lyrics perch.

My image of myself as a writer rests between the reality and the porch where I sat. The winter sun bore down on me within feet of her place of creation, and I found myself alive with the possibility that I too can create poetry from place.

While both have passed from this lifetime, their words and actions live on in me and others who look to their examples to give us courage and hope and appreciation for the beauty which surrounds us.

“But what of the land? It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned …We are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Cross Creek, 1942