I couldn’t wait.
The first post in my Great Summer Re-Reading Project was originally scheduled for June 14.
But the first book I (re)read was SO wonderful I couldn’t wait that long to talk about it.
Crossing to Safety was the first book by Wallace Stegner that I ever read. When I bought it back in 1987, I had never heard of Mr. Stegner. I’m not sure why I bought the book. It was purchased at a bookstore called Rizzoli’s, and to my knowledge there has never been a bookstore of that name ‘round these parts. So I must have been on vacation, but for the life of me, I can’t remember where. (Google tells me there is a Rizzoli’s Books in New York city, but my first time in New York was 1993, and I was on a trip with high school students at the time. Hard to imagine I would have been book shopping. Hmmm…a mystery.)
I do remember reading the book the first time – being completely awestruck by this man’s use of language, his vision of the world, and most importantly, the way he took the story of two married couples- four ordinary people – and their friendship, and elevated it to something so meaningful and so important.
Reading this book in 1987, I would have had no clue about the kind of relationship he was talking about. My husband and I didn’t have any married couple friends to hang out with in those days. We each had separate friendships, but the only other married couple we were at all close to lived out of state and we only saw them once or twice a year.
This relationship of which Stegner writes, between Sid and Charity Lang, and Larry and Sally Morgan, a relationship that begins when the two men start working together as English professors at the University of Wisconsin, and grows into the kind of remarkable closeness that’s almost frightening, is the cornerstone of the novel. The two couples “converged,” and “were drawn together, braided, plaited into a friendship,” one held together with “no glue,” only “mutual liking.”
Nothing really happens in this novel. Oh, life happens – Sid gets passed over for tenure, Larry and Sally struggle with money, Larry writes a novel, Sally gets polio and learns to manage life on crutches. Meanwhile, Charity, with her iron will and her notebooks full of plans steers everyone on the course she thinks is best. Somehow the things that happen aren’t so important. It’s the way the two couples remain bound together, how their mutual differences somehow unite them.
The real beauty of this book is Stegner’s thoughtful examination of this simple life and what makes it worthwhile for these people over the course of several decades. Can one really write a good book about that? In the novel, Charity Lang exhorts Larry Morgan to do just that, time and again. “Oh, come on,” she says to Larry on one occasion, “why don’t you just ignore all that stuff so many modern writers concentrate on, and write something about a really decent, kind, good human being living a normal life in a normal community, interested in the things most ordinary people are interested in – family, children, education – good uplifting entertainment?”
But Larry is not so sure.
“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?”
But you see, I don’t recognize myself in those things, Larry. And perhaps the stories we need to read most are about people like me – decent, kind human beings -doing the best we can with what life places in our path, getting by with a little help from our friends.
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Crossing to Safety answers Larry’s question ever so admirably. In the hands of a masterful writer, it can definitely be done.