Wallace Stegner, an American author born in 1909, is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Angle of Repose (1972). He wrote for six decades – novels, short stories, biographies and essays. Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s last novel, published in 1987 when the author was seventy-eight years old, and it’s the first of his books I’ve read.
Let me say upfront that on reading the first 60 pages of Crossing to Safety I already knew it had the potential to be one of my favourite books of the year, and I’m sticking with this thought. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving.
The story opens in 1972. Larry Morgan, successful author and college Professor, and his wife Sally have journeyed to Battell Pond, Vermont, the home of their dear friends Sid and Charity Lang. It’s a place the Morgans have visited many times in the past, and on their return Larry recalls how he and Sally met the Langs back in the late 1930s. From here, Larry narrates their story through a series of flashbacks starting with the Morgans’ move to Madison, Wisconsin in 1937.
Larry, a bright, hard-working graduate and budding author, has gained his first role, a nine-month slot teaching English in the University of Wisconsin. He’s married to Sally, a calm, humane and loving woman whom he met at Berkeley College. Soon after their arrival in Wisconsin and desperately short of money, the Morgans meet another young couple at a similar stage in their lives – Sid Lang, another young member of the English Department, and his vibrant, beautiful and headstrong wife, Charity. The Langs are comfortably off, their warmth and generosity knows no bounds, and they quickly take Larry and Sally under their wings:
When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gracefully in.
Crept? Rushed. Coming from meagreness and low expectations, we felt their friendship as freezing travelers feel a dry room and a fire. Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction, and were never the same thereafter. Thought better of ourselves, thought better of the world. (pg. 37, Penguin Classics)
And so begins a deep and lifelong friendship between the two couples. These early years are full of promise for the Morgans and Langs. They share hopes, dreams and a desire to contribute; they wish to leave their individual marks on the world. Stegner captures this mood in vivid, luminous prose, which I hope to illustrate through the passage quoted below – it’s a prose style somewhat reminiscent of James’s Salter’s in Light Years. Here’s Larry as he recalls the foursome skating on Lake Montana in the presence of iceboats and a little airplane (both Sally and Charity are pregnant at the time):
I remember the gray, snow-spitting afternoon, the bite of cold wind on chin and cheeks and brows, the cold of feet cramped into too-small borrowed skate shoes, the throttled-down whistle and mutter of the plane landing behind me, the vision of a racing ice-boat shearing away with one runner off the ice and the operator spread-eagled on the deck, and the sight of Sally and Sid leaning and stroking, and Charity gliding by, portly and exhilarated, encouraging me while I flounder flabby-ankled, and fall down, and get up, and fall down again.
But I remember even better the hour afterward in our basement, hot buttered rum and Sally’s cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven. Red faces, tingling skin, exuberant vitality, laughter, and for Sally and me the uncustomary pleasure of giving instead of taking. (pg. 60)
But as time passes, we discover that not everything in the garden is rosy. Charity is a force to be reckoned with; always organising others, always needing to control and direct key decisions. She’s desperate for Sid to succeed, to secure tenure at Wisconsin, and her heart is set on building a future for their family. While Sid would prefer to spend his time writing poetry, Charity pushes him to write academic papers, ideally articles that stand a good chance of publication, as she knows the higher-ups in the English Department value such things.
As the novel progresses, Stegner reveals further tensions in the Langs’ marriage, and these pressures are visible to Larry and Sally, too:
Eden. With, of course, its serpent. No Eden valid without serpent.
It was not a very big serpent, nor very alarming. But once we noticed it, we realised that it had been there all along, that what we had thought only the wind in the grass, or the scraping of a dry leaf, was this thing sliding discreetly out of sight. Even when we recognized it for what it was, it did not seem dangerous. It just made us look before we sat down. (pg.163)
To a certain extent, the Langs’ marriage is built on mutual dependence. Sid needs Charity to give structure to his life, to provide direction; Charity needs someone to manage. The trouble is ‘she’s never wrong’. There’s a different dependence between Larry and Sally, their relationship is less strained and they feed on each other’s love and support. Sally becomes dependent on her husband for physical care, and it’s clear that she’s the bedrock of Larry’s world. Sally and Charity also share a strong bond illustrated here by Larry’s reflections on the relationships that exist between the two couples:
Charity and I like each other well and somewhat warily. Half of our pleasure in each other’s company comes from resisting each other. But Charity and Sally are stitched together with a thousand threads of feeling and shared experience. Each is for the other that one unfailingly understanding and sympathetic fellow-creature that everybody wishes for and many never find. Sid and I are close, but they are closer. (pg. 278)
As well as showing us the value of deep friendship, Crossing to Safety explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks that confront them during their lives. There is no great melodrama here – no infidelities, no acts of malicious violence, no hatred or vengeance. Their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. In this respect, Crossing to Safety reminds me a little of John Williams’s Stoner, a recently-reissued book that gives us the story of a man’s seemingly less than remarkable life. Like Stoner, the final section of Crossing to Safety touches on our mortality. It raises questions as to how each of these individuals might manage if their partner were to die. How might the one left behind cope without their soulmate? Could any of us survive if faced with the same fate?
There’s a point in this novel when Charity’s son-in-law, Moe, asks Larry why he hasn’t penned the one book that’s screaming to be written, the story of Sid, Charity, Larry and Sally’s lives. Larry contemplates the following question: ‘How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?’ Well, that’s exactly what Wallace Stegner has done with Crossing to Safety, a book that captured my heart. So fully invested was I in the Morgans and the Langs, I didn’t want their story to end.
Crossing to Safety is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.