Neglected California Tale Is a Must-Read by Victoria Waddle

My local library had added an adult reading program to its menu of summer kids’ programs. Always supportive, I had shown up ready to list the many books I was reading. Just before I started to fill in the participation form with Sedaris’ “When You are Engulfed in Flames,” the librarian mentioned that the staff had chosen to give the adult program a theme. The children’s program was about ‘bugs’ and the teen program was about ‘metamorphosis.’ Adult program participants would read books connected to California in some way.

Still wanting to be supportive, I figured I’d jot down the titles of the John Steinbeck novels I’d read. “When you finish the first book, you get a free DVD rental,” the library lady quipped, handing me the coupon. Now I was in a quandary. I hadn’t read the Steinbeck books over the summer—not even in the last several years in fact—and I wasn’t one to accept a reward for something I hadn’t done.

“Let me see what I can come up with,” I told her, but dreaded adding a book to my already long summer reading list just to follow the program rules. There were so many good books at home already!

A few days later, in one of the loveliest moments of serendipity in my life, a friend handed me a birthday gift. Not just any friend, but one whose core sympathies so deeply parallel my own that I not only trust her judgment and taste; I skip her advice at my own peril. “Read this book,” she said. “You have to read this book.”

And I did read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Despite the fact that Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, I had never heard of it. It was an old book by now—published in 1971—but reissued as a Penguin Classic. Stegner published many fine books and won the National Book Award as well as three O. Henry prizes for short fiction and the Robert Kirsch Award from the Los Angeles Times for lifetime literary achievement. Nonetheless, Angle of Repose is considered his finest work.

It seems to me that the book’s jacket blurb does little to interest the reader in buying the title. ‘A man looks into his grandmother’s past in California.’ So what? It is the very personal past of the grandmother—her desperate efforts to follow her husband through his California scheming and his moves through unpopulated areas as he works to develop irrigation systems and other infrastructure that the state isn’t quite ready for—that hooks the reader. Through letters to her friends ‘back East,’ the grandmother, Susan Burling, makes apologies for her husband, laments being removed from culture and society, longs for good books and her family.

Susan’s story is framed by the narrator’s own life. Lyman Ward is an old man himself with a degenerative bone disease that has left him crippled and wheelchair bound. His wife of many years left him while he was hospitalized and his adult children think he is going senile because he wishes to be alone in the Grass Valley home of his grandparents to sort through his grandmother’s letters and to write his grandparents’ history.

The narrator’s grandmother is based on Mary Hallock Foote, a nineteenth-century writer and illustrator. Stegner received permission from Foote’s descendants to publish some of her letters in his book (although the family later accused him of plagiarism). The passion of these unaltered letters gives the book an insight into the crucible of a married woman’s life that would otherwise have been missing. It is moving to see how deeply this nineteenth-century marriage, with all its problems, parallels twenty-first century relationships and the issues that plague them. That Susan’s creative life and spirit continually support the family with income from her work—while her husband’s work fails–is ironic considering that the life she and her husband are living is hardly the kind that one would expect to nurture her creativity. And yet Susan is able to capture local color throughout California and in Mexico—sending her work to her publishing friends in the East, who know there is a market for the exotic tales and illustrations.

One of the men who is an employee and trusted friend of Susan’s husband has the misfortune to fall in love with her. Considering the turmoil of her marriage to a taciturn engineer, it would seem natural that Susan return his affection. And yet these are decent people with high moral principles. Veering from them—or even thinking of veering from them—can only lead to tragedy. And it does. As the narrator Lyman Ward explores this, he considers the role of forgiveness in his own marriage.

The editors of the Modern Library have chosen Angle of Repose as one of the ‘one hundred best books of the twentieth century.’ Trust them. Trust me—a fellow bibliophile. Read this book. You have to read this book.

Note: October is California Writers’ Month. If you haven’t had a chance to celebrate by reading a Californian author, there’s still time!