‘What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward, the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the west they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future, until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.’
The title ‘Angle of Repose’ is a powerful metaphor. It represents the compromises necessary for the survival of both the mining pioneers and the incapacitated, aged narrator Lyman Ward. It also forms a fascinating nexus between the narrator’s circumstances and the results of his historical researches. This raise the novel above the level of being just a fine chronicle of the tough living conditions in mid 19th century pioneering mine sites. Lyman uses his researches to do nothing less than reframe his life perspectives, and try to decide whether he can reconcile himself to accepting the return of his unfaithful wife.
This dynamic is what gives the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ‘Angle of Repose,” the power and intrigue of an authentic inquiry. It becomes a search by Lyman Ward into the links between the ability of his grandparents to hold a marriage together, through the most adverse of circumstances, and his confrontation of ‘if I am man enough to be bigger than my grandfather.’
In his wheelchair bound condition, he churns over the potential return of his wife, Ellen, by studying the past; ‘I chose to look back…that is the only direction we can learn from.’ She had previously left him to live with Lyman’s own medical specialist. On his mysterious death, Ellen had returned to see if Lyman would take her back. These events form the psychological backdrop and the contemporary relevance to his semi-historical recreation of the life of his much admired grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. Can he, an academic historian, mine the past (sorry!) for answers to his present dilemma? Absolutely he can, and in the most courageous, authentic and revealing manner possible. It is the striking descriptions, fully created characters and cleverly sequenced transitions between past and present, which engage the reader and creates empathy both for Susan Ward in the 19th century and Lyman himself in the present.
‘I skip over that summer, in which nothing much happened but the passage of time, and jump to a chilly night in September 1883. The four of them sat around a big fire on the beach. Under a wide river of sky the river of water went with wet splashings, sunk in the rock, and above and along the river of water, down the beaches and around corners of worn stone, flowed a river of cold air that was sucked into the draft of the fire and spewed upward as sparks that multiplied the stars. Susan felt it numb on the back of her neck, and pulled up the collar of Oliver’s sheepskin coat and tightened the rebozo around her hair.’
Wallace Stegner has used the letters of the 19th century artist and social historian Mary Hallock Foote as the basis for the character of his grandmother. His extensive quotations from these letters ground the novel in the brutal realities of life in frontier mining towns. They also record a story of the displacement and melancholic yearning experienced by women of higher social standing in the alienating cultural deserts of the west. Despite these conditions, Susan musters tremendous courage and resilience in trying to make the most of her circumstances. (quote?) But Lyman starts to see that the seeds of the difficulties in her grandparent’s marriage were sown in Susan’s acceptance of a good honest man, whom she could never fully love and accept for his own virtues.
‘You married me…but you didn’t marry what you could make out of me.’
The greatness of this novel is that its tone of quiet intensity builds into a powerful tribute to those who pioneered the American West, and the compromises and sacrifices they made in spreading civilization to the new lands. Stegner’s atmospheric descriptions of these various landscapes are a feature of this story. It also foregrounds the challenges of recording the fractured narratives and lives of the present day, where meaning, value and significance have to be written everyday on a newly blank canvas of doubt. There is so much to admire in this powerful, meditative novel.
‘I must remember who I am. I am a historical pseudo-Fate, I hold the abhorred shears…And now I really must get down to it. No more of this picking a random card. Let me find the crucial one-the first crucial one. Here it is.’