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.


Book Review Friday – Yesterday Road

Small coverI once read that all memory is fiction. What remains rather than specific details is the perception and the ghost of emotions garnered from that memory.

Yesterday Road by Kevin Brennan shows the fiction of the memory is the most important.

Jack in Yesterday Road finds himself on the road a few hours from San Francisco one day with no memory of who he is or where he’s been. He hooks up with a Down syndrome young man named Joe, and the two travel in an innocent cocoon until adopted by Ida who doesn’t know that her waitress uniform conceals a big heart.

Jack’s memory of his past comes to him at night in his dreams as some form of fiction. He remembers snatches of things and knows from the things he says that he was a good man with a strong family. Without the facility to name those things from his past, including his own name, he leads with his instinct and shows those he meets great kindness and offers them a way to live in the present.

The agony of Alzheimer’s is portrayed in Jack’s knowing he won’t remember things if he goes to sleep. One night he stays up purposefully so he won’t forget Joe. As he knew would happen, Joe is gone from his memory the next time he sleeps.

His memories of the past come fleetingly, and he remembers them enough to take him to the place he knows was once home. He hears the voices of his parent, such as the words of his mother:

“Everyone follows his own path, she said. Remember that. Once you start out, you’re the only one who knows the right way to go.”

Those words carry him forth to where he knows not, but he continues on his journey aided by the kindness and love of Ida who abandons her own life for a few days to help Jack find his way.

Yesterday Road takes the reader on a weeklong odyssey with Jack and a cast of characters. The relationship between Jack and Joe is one of the sweetest. Jack knows that Joe can’t take of himself; and Joe knows that Jack can’t remember anything. Between the two of them, they manage to pull off a few miraculous acts. Those of us with most of our faculties intact probably couldn’t pull off half of what these two men do.

Brennan’s novel creates a poignant tale of what it means to be a victim of Alzheimer’s. Two people close to me suffered through this disease, and the worst stage for both of them occurred in the shadow stage of the disease. They knew they had it; they knew they forgot things; they knew enough to cry for what they’d lost even though they couldn’t always remember what it was. Jack is in this stage, and at times, it’s painful to read, but it’s important to read.

I started this book on Monday night and finished it the next day. It’s not a long book, but it’s filled with well-drawn character sketches, particularly of Jack, Joe, and Ida. But Brennan also writes with vivid precision of the minor characters to help move along the plot without clogging its progression.

Brennan’s writing is concise and clear, and correct. These are what I call the three C’s of writing. His depiction of Alzheimer’s is correct. The heartbreak of the disease is clear through the dialogue and actions of Jack. And his language is concise as he moves the plot along without stopping to smell the flowers on the side of the road as these road warriors travel from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to Omaha to Wisconsin.

I recommend giving this book a try if you want to immerse yourself in three very likable and charming characters who come to life in such a way that the fiction of our memory doesn’t matter so much as the effect it has on our living now.

Click here to read my interview with Kevin Brennan on Author Wednesday.