Sunday, June 22, 2014

Crossing to Safety

Wallace Stegner is becoming one of my favorite writers.  I really enjoyed his The Angle of Repose, which I read three years ago--has it been that long already?--but I absolutely loved his Crossing to Safety, which I finished this morning.

The title is from a Robert Frost poem, I Could Give All to Time, and the last stanza is quoted at the front of the book:
I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.
I found myself rereading these lines several times during the course of reading the novel, and they do beautifully and concisely, and poetically, encapsulate the novel.

Crossing to Safety is literature at it's finest.  Though it is the story of two couples and their friendship over four decades, Stegner didn't need horrific circumstances to explore the dark places of the heart and pysche.  Even when one of the characters is struck by a devastating illness, this takes place mostly off-stage.  It is the drama of life--living, loving, working, striving, disappointing, expecting, and being blind-sided--that Stegner navigates with a sure hand and a compassionate but honest voice.

According to Wikipedia, the novel is semi-autobiographical (note to self--find bio of Stegner).  The main character, the first-person narrator, is Larry Morgan--a writer and professor of English.  He and his wife Sally are befriended by Sid and Charity Lang when Larry lands a job at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1930s.  Sid is also a professor of English, and Charity is a budding matriarch, coming from a Boston family littered with intellectuals and strong women.

The story is told in flashbacks, beginning with Larry and Sally's arrival at the Lang family compound in Vermont in 34 years after the couples met, where Charity is facing terminal cancer and Sid is facing a life without Charity.

It is a beautifully crafted story, and an absolute pleasure to read.  There are many threads to the story, many parallels that provide ample fodder for thought.  Here are a few things that struck me.

- While Larry is often critical of Charity's controlling nature, which subverts Sid's desire to be a poet/farmer instead of a tenured professor, he does recognize a kindred spirit in her when he writes of relishing his role as novelist to control the world he creates for his characters.  Charity was a novelist who tried to create the world she wanted and tried to mold her family and friends into characters of her making.  And yet, many novelists talk about struggling to actually control their characters--many are surprised to find themselves recording stories they have unleashed.

- Despite Charity's controlling nature, no one questions that she is generosity itself.  Time and again, she selflessly cares for others--her smile lights up the room, and she is intuitive and sensitive, caring, and open.  She is well-named--she is charity...and yet, with charity comes power.  There is no such thing as a free lunch, in the end.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

"The matriarchy simply unhinged its jaw and swallowed him as it swallows all sons-in-law."
"Nothing is so safe as habit, even when habit is faked."

"...there is this snake, no bigger than a twig or a flame of movement in the grass. It is not an intruder in Eden, it was born here. It is one of Hawthorne's bosom serpents, rarely noticed because in the bosom it inhabits it can so easily camouflage itself among a crowd of the warmest and most generous sentiments."

  • This is one of the most interesting ideas in the book. The snake doesn't intrude into Eden, it was born there! Eden's idyllic state is inherently unstable because the serpent is of Eden.

As a hiker I was thrilled to find Larry and Sid quoting Bliss Carman's A Vagabond Song
THERE is something in the autumn that is native to my blood—
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.
And finally and most fittingly:
"How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?” 

Crossing to Safety is a quiet book about decent, intelligent, interesting, ordinary people--it is a wise and thoughtful book, heart-breaking in its compassion.  It tells a story of survival, and reminds the reader that survival is only temporary: I would give all to Time...and what I would not part with I have kept.

Crossing to Safety is a TBR Pile Challenge book on my 2014 list.  Another favorite from the TBR Pile!  It's only the 4th book I've read this year from my list of 12--I need to get cracking on the list and stop getting side-tracked.  We've just passed the Solstice!


  1. This sounds super.

    The characters and the plot sound so well crafted and to some extent reflective of real life and thoughtful.

    I also really like the literary and mythological connections that you mention.

    Great review!

  2. Crossing to Safety is my idea of the perfect novel! I've been considering a reread for the past couple of years, but think I may try to find a Stegner bio first.

    1. Thanks so much for recommending it on your blog, JoAnn!

  3. One of my all-time favorite Crossing to Safety over 20 times including 2 months ago. Highly recommended!

    1. I didn't realize it was such a favorite with you, Stewart. I think Big Rock Candy Mountain will be my next Stegner.

  4. I Loved this book too and it is sort of shameful really that I have not picked up anything else by him in the interim since I read it (maybe three years ago or thereabouts, too). Must go and pull something by him that I have on hand and set it on top of the TBR (next!) pile! He's definitely one of the best writers I have ever come across!

  5. Isn't this story sublime?
    Glad to hear that Angel of Repose is just as good as I have it on my TBR pile :-)