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Wallace Stegner's Pultizer Prize winning novel is a story of discovery—personal historical and geographical Confined to a wheelchair retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents' remarkable story chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America's western frontier But his research reveals even about his own life than he's willing to admit What emerges is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American family


10 thoughts on “Angle of Repose

  1. says:

    Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972 this book is considered by some to be Stegner’s masterpiece It’s a great read that is largely based on the true story of a woman pioneer in the west when so many other books about this era tell the stories of men Layered on the frontier story is the fictional story of the man writing it who turns these pioneers into his grandparents An older divorced man confined to a wheel chair with one leg missing Stegner interweaves his narrator’s isolation on a western ranch and his family’s efforts to get him into some kind of assisted living He has a local woman and her daughter help him bathe and dress take dictation and type his story Their family dramas provide us with at times humorous interludes to the main historical saga The daughter is a flower child from Berkeley and our old fogey narrator spares no words in telling us what he thinks about that generationThe historical saga is mainly the true story of Mary Hallock Foote child of a wealthy New York uaker family born in 1847 By marrying a young mining engineer headed west to make his fortune Mary choose to leave her life of comfort and culture tied in with famous New York literary lights to go live in shacks in western towns where she was often the only educated woman for miles around It was as if she had gone to MarsTo keep her brain alive she writes freuently to literary friends back east often without seeing them for years and we a learn a lot about her marriage their family hardships and her financial struggles from these real letters She’s an artist who sells her sketches of western life and short stories back east to magazines like Harper’s and Century Magazine As her husband struggles often her income becomes the sole support of the family For the 60 years of her marriage 1876 1936 she lived in New Almaden near San Jose California; Leadville Colorado; Deadwood South Dakota; Boise Idaho Michoacán Mexico and Grass Valley California It took her a long time to realize that what she thought of in her youth as an “excursion” had become a lifetime commitment to exile from her Eastern roots Nothing went well; they always struggled financially and lost money on irrigation schemes At one point she confides in a life long male friend and perhaps a lover “There lie the most wasted years of our lives” Some passages I liked “I am impressed with how much of my grandparents’ life depended on continuities contacts connections friendships and blood relationships Contrary to the myth the West was not made entirely by pioneers who had thrown everything away but an ax and a gun”“It is not the Nevada City I knew as a boy Towns are like people Old ones have character the new ones are interchangeable Nevada City is in the process of changing from old to new” “the West was not a new country being created but an old one being reproduced; in that sense our pioneer women were always realistic than our pioneer men”The way Stegner used Mary Foote’s letters caused controversy among her family and among literary critics in a way that sullied Stegner’s reputation Yes he had permission from the family to use her letters as historical background for the story But he published many of her previously unpublished letters verbatim making up a good portion of the book The letters were later published separately in a book titled A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote To photo Deadwood South Dakota from oldglorygunsmithblogspotcomMiddle photo Leadville Colorado in 1904 from narrowgaugeorgLower Mary Hallock Foote sketched by her daughter from Wikipedia


  2. says:

    Fellow Goodreaders know that feeling of exhilaration when a new entrant pushes its way onto a top ten of all time list Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winner from 1972 is my most recent example Of course Goodreads reviewers also know the pressure involved in justifying the choice So what makes this one so good? As befits a top ten inclusion here are ten factors that come to mind 1 A Damn Good Story Lyman Ward is a former professor of history with a bone disease that put him in a wheelchair He moved into his grandparents’ house in California where he’d spent much of his boyhood With a strong personal interest and a research historian’s skills he studied the lives of his grandmother Susan and his grandfather Oliver She was an artist and later a writer transplanted from her genteel life in New York to be with her husband the earnest engineer out West He specialized in big projects mines irrigation canals etc His integrity prevented the material success he would have liked as a source of comfort for Susan She created what culture she could in mining towns and had become known for her illustrations and magazine articles about life in the West Stegner had permission to use real letters of a writer and painter from that era lending the narrative an authentic voice As their family dramas unfolded Lyman had a few related episodes of self discovery all very cleverly done 2 Complex Characters What book could ever be considered great without an interesting cast? These players were decidedly not stick figures – like Rubenesue actually that’s not the exact opposite I was going for but you know what I mean Starting out Lyman seemed like a stock character – the crusty recluse – but he becomes central and nuanced as the book goes on The way we see his grandparents through his eyes tells us a lot about him To be honest early in his narration I was put off by his invented dialog and false omniscience but later after he copped to this as a way to make them real I actually liked the device All the characters the ones on the periphery included seemed very credible with emotions that rang true and unexpected depths that only a first rate writer could have imagined 3 Interesting History It’s an impressive laundry list of things the curious reader can learn about technology of the time from Oliver’s various engineering projects culture the arts community in NY pioneer life in the West the opulent part of Mexico where Susan and Oliver almost stayed for a job and manners subtle social conventions shady business dealings dirty politics Lyman with his background in history was a very knowledgeable narrator He had remarkable tunnel vision literally since his disease prevented him from turning his head trained on his subjects 4 Conflict Clashes were easy to come by when the refined East civilized society met the rough and tumble West opportunity Tightrope walks were performed between desire and moral responsibility the practical and the romantic and in the case of Lyman and a curvy young assistant the stodgy academic and the free spirited hippie There was conflict in Lyman’s concept of himself too Was he like his grandmother or grandfather? It turned out to be a key uestion 5 Blissful? Institutions The give and take of a marriage was a central theme Susan was described as “ lady than woman” and Oliver was “ man than gentleman” This made for some tension As Stegner himself said in a Paris Review interview Susan is talented in many ways than Oliver She shows off better But while I wrote that book thinking that I was writing about her as a heroine I came to the end of it thinking maybe he is the hero because there is a flaw in her a flaw of snobbery She doesn’t adeuately appreciate the kind of person he is or the kind of work he does That’s a story not about either men or women but about a relationship a novel about a marriageOn top of this Lyman reflected on his own former marriage Would he forgive his ex wife for what she did to him? Should he have done to prevent it from happening in the first place? More good uestions both for him and for us 6 Metaphorical Resonance “Angle of repose” is an engineering term referring to the angle at which rocks and soil settle when tumbling down off a slope before coming to a stop Lyman’s goal was to see “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” Another way to think of it may be as the point at which the slights that we suffer lose their animating force and finally give way to acceptance Stegner spells out a second metaphor so well that I’m willing to risk further attention suelching length to include it There is another physical law that teases me too the Doppler Effect The sound of anything coming at you – a train say or the future – has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies it constantly accelerates But I would like to hear your life as you heard it coming at you instead of hearing it as I do a somber sound of expectations reduced desires blunted hopes deferred or abandoned chances lost defeats accepted griefs borne 7 Powerful Descriptions What was clever here was how natural it was for Susan the artist to describe and even embellish the new sights she would see out West Her eye for detail never got tedious Of course we know to credit Stegner for excluding any word that didn’t pull its weight There were countless little analogies too that made for a pleasant experience For example “Bunion footed wearing her look of a supposedly house broken dog which is called upon to explain a puddle on the floor Mrs Briscoe labored toward them” 8 Organic Philosophy I like reading bigger thoughts but less so when they’re without context If they appear as natural outgrowths of a story or a character profile I’m all in With A of R I’m spoiled for choice looking for examples Here are a few ranging from aphorism and homily It is an easy mistake to think that non talkers are non feelers You'll do what you think you want to do or what you think you ought to do If you're very lucky luckier than anybody I know the two will coincide Home is a notion that only the nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend Civilizations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions not by repudiations The rebels and the revolutionaries are only eddies they keep the stream from getting stagnant but they get swept down and absorbed they're a side issue uiet desperation is another name for the human condition If revolutionaries would learn that they can't remodel society by day after tomorrow haven't the wisdom to and shouldn't be permitted to I'd have respect for them Civilizations grow and change and decline they aren't remade 9 Awfully Good Writing I may have made my case already with the examples I’ve included but let me add that this is than just pretty language we’re talking about here There’s plenty of substance to it too To my mind Stegner is a true master of the craft Every sentence has heft yet never at the expense of flow Early on I thought Stegner is like a grown up when so many others are mere children in comparison His candle power shines brightly on every page 10 Opportunities for Growth Hokeyness aside how many books do you read and wonder “Gee willikers am I possibly becoming a better person?” If you’re drawn to intelligence please give Lyman his grandparents and most of all Stegner a try If cumulative insight into human experience floats your boat ships ahoy


  3. says:

    I read this book based largely on the Goodreads reviews Maybe I'm not as smart as other reviewers or maybe other reviewers give it high praise because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner and they didn't want to look dumb something to which I have no aversion or maybe this was just a fluke but I didn't think this book was worth reading I wouldn't recommend it to anyone I started the book about 4 or 5 times and when I finally did slog through it it was in 5 and 10 page increments I just couldn't get rolling with it My bottom line four word review is This book is boringNot to say that it didn't have good points There were two real strengths in my opinion 1 As others have pointed out Stegner has an extraordinary way with words His descriptive prose is remarkable It flows like poetry from line to line to line and definitely sets a scene 2 This is the only Pulitzer Prize winning book that I have read that contains the phrase I felt a hot erection rising from my mutilated lap Ah memories of seventh grade algebraBut those don't make up for the bad NOTHING HAPPENS Maybe I should put a spoiler alert there or here but nothing happens The book has no plot They go from place to place to place He's unsuccessful She is a pouting snob They wait for their break They move Lather rinse repeat Don't get me wrong I can enjoy books about relationships and internal strife and family struggles I don't need hermaphrodite crack dealers racing jet skis through burning buildings while cheating on their KGB spystripper girlfriends or anything But I do need some plot Also the main character the narrator's grandmother is one of the annoying characters that I have ever come across I spent the majority of the book hoping that she'd step in front of a train Alas she doesn't It took me 550 arduous pages to learn this


  4. says:

    Update geeeezzz Marie Another 199 Kindle gem this morning I bought it myself and I own an old paper copy It’s true I never wrote a review read it before I did such foolish things hahaBut if readers have not read this book yet TIMELESS and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner also TIMELESS you’re missing two wonderful books Two of my all time favorites I’m sure you can find detailed reviews either here on Goodreads or Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize some of the location takes place near where I live and trails I hike HIGHLY RECOMMENDEDOH MY GOSHHere is another book I never wrote a review Its sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo goodOne of my all favorite books


  5. says:

    This book started out great but uickly got repetitive for me Learning on Wikipedia that Stegner derived with permission large parts of it from real letters published the next year certainly took winds out of my sails Several critics have mentioned that Stegner's version of Mary Hallock Foote diverges considerably from the original a necessity for the author trying to fit his story to her narrative That being said it is impossible not to recognize the talent behind the writing and the clever weaving of the story of the amputee grandson writing about the tribulations of his grandparents while also telling one story of how the West was americanized My favorite bits are probably the dialogs between Susan and Oliver but I found there was an annoying sucking sound as their lives spun like broken records with only slight variations as Oliver drifted from broken promise to broken dream over and over again Both the author and the narrator are fairly conservative with respect to history and although capable of tenderness both are afflicted with a deprecating view of women which also hampered my enjoyment Perhaps you will say that Roth or Updike are even deprecating to which I will answer they don't pretend to be sort of hip old farts like the narrator in this book feigning a modern attitude but in a sort of condescending way in his dialogues with Shelley while in fact being uite reactionary And yes I will read Crossing to Safety to give Stegner a second chanceAn interesting read nonetheless


  6. says:

    Little did I expect that the taming of the Wild West could be so intricately reflected in the ongoing evolution of a marriage with all its tensions compromises and sporadic moments of exultation; a marriage that seemed doomed to failure from the startLyman Ward retired historian and scholar now prostrated in a wheelchair sets his mind to write the story of his grandparents and their generation of the many young adventurers who embarked on a non return trip to the inhospitable Western lands to lay down the foundations of a future civilization in the second half of the nineteenth centuryThe evocative fast paced storytelling takes the reader into virgin landscapes across the American border from Idaho to Mexico featuring the West as the silent protagonist of this historical epic mixing flawless and highly descriptive narration with letters that document the daily life and struggles of Sue and Oliver Ward to make a home of this remote unforgiving territory As Lyman absorbs his grandmother’s intimate thoughts through her correspondence he is unconsciously searching for a way to come to terms with his present which has him paralyzed in a deadlock situation Abandoned by his wife dependent and isolated from the world he juxtaposes the values of the sixties with the ones that ruled in the “Old West” and drowns his frustration and loneliness in whisky every night hoping to find the definite answer in his grandmother’s resolution to stick to her own decisions to her marriage for better or for worse in spite of the many differences that separated her from her husband Sue a lady than a woman a refined sophisticated artist and social creature from the East view spoilercharacter based on the illustrator and writer Mary Hallock Foote hide spoiler


  7. says:

    I have read this book twice so far The first time I was a single college student The second time I had been married about five years I'm sure I will read it again a few times And I'm sure that the years of marriage I've logged the I will get out of this book Marriage and what it takes and takes out of you to make it work is the main theme of this book Stegner has some profound things to say about it But even before I could personally relate to the story's main theme I found the book beautiful and haunting Stegner is a real artist His individual sentences are carefully crafted He masterfully winds together multiple plot lines which span centuries and uses them to enrich and illuminate each other He also creates a vivid sense of place in his descriptions of the 19th century American West The characters are not easy; they are multi dimensional prickly and flawed But how could you write a realistic book about marriage with perfectly likable characters?


  8. says:

    ”I am on my grandparents’ side I believe in Time as they did and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential We live in time and through it we build our huts in its ruins or used to and we cannot afford all these abandonings” ”I can look in any direction by turning my wheelchair and I choose to look back that is the only direction we can learn from” While confined to a wheelchair Lyman Ward begins to read through his grandmother’s papers her stories old letters and their story A story that tells of the history of the west when it was still a frontier to be settled and of her struggles from being uprooted from the only home she ever knew in the east leaving behind not only family and friends but comfort and the well established civility of her life for a life devoid of certainty comfort and culture ”Was the uiet I always felt in you really repose? I wish I thought so It is one of the uestions I want the papers to answer” ”But I would like to hear your life as you heard it coming at you instead of hearing it as I do a sober sound of expectations reduced desires blunted hopes deferred or abandoned chances lost defeats accepted griefs borne” Lyman’s grandmother Susan Burling Ward and grandfather Oliver Ward take us through the changes they encounter while periodically returning to Lyman’s thoughts his reflections on his days in Grass Valley while researching this story his thoughts on the changing of America his thoughts on the story of his grandparents his thoughts on the people in his day to day encounters And always returning to his grandmother’s thoughts trying to burrow his way into her feelings beyond the words she left behind ”Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow you heard the receding sound of what you had relinuished” Regrets unspoken or unwritten as they may be filter through but for most of these years Susan at least tries to rise to the challenge presented by each camp they find themselves residing in with Oliver a mining engineer From California to Colorado and then to Mexico followed by Idaho and then back During those years they went from newly married to having their first child and then children A glance behind the scenes of four generations of one family of life on the western frontier an insightful objectively penetrating look at a marriage Stegner mining it for gems that invariably expose dirt destruction and what remains ”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” I added this book to my list of Want to Reads back at the beginning of February 2016 after reading Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety” in 2014 and debating which Stegner novel to add so sure that I’d already read his best Which is his best out of even just these two? Both are magnificent Highly Recommended


  9. says:

    Wallace Stegner was once uoted as saying It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story that’s my story this was referring to the tour de force novel that is 'Angle of Repose' which just about ticks all the boxes in terms of literary perfection containing masterful writing of great prose and vision an epic engrossing and mature story charting four generations of an american family trying to carve a piece of history into the western frontier and richly detailed characters that take us on a journey that truly stands the test of time Retired historian Lyman Ward charts the remarkable story of his grandparents and in particular his grandmother Susan Burling Ward confined to a wheelchair in their old home he goes through many a letter starting from the latter stages of the ninetieth century regarding their first encounter marriage children friends and work colleagues and long travels in search of work opportunities for Lyman's grandfather Oliver Ward who is trying and often failing to tap into the development of mining Having been bought up east in the New York area where civilization is settled and life grand Susan would go on to make the ultimate sacrifice regarding her own aspirations and leaving behind her family and very close friend Augusta to travel far west with her husband who has a clear vision for their future With Susan a refined and well educated young lady and Oliver an overly enthusiastic adventurer type who is always humbled in the presence of his wife they head out west in search of the all american dreamWhat is striking in the early stages is the experience of seeing the west through eastern eyes where Susan is horrified at the lack of any culture and order who discovers a land of dirt dust and immense heat that make up a hostile and unforgiving place to try and settle where the terrain is a character in it's own right this Stegner does impeccably eventually she does start to appreciate the raw and rugged beauty of her surroundings but with Oliver gone most of the time Susan is often left on her own and throughout their married life she often defines herself with life back east Once settled in a home it's not long before they are on the move again due to financial problems and Oliver would take up a post elsewhere but with one of three children they would go on to have the emotional strain for Susan is beginning to impact hard with the trend of traveling often and leaving son Ollie back east she is clearly starting to uestion her love but love is a powerful thing and does keep them together through thick and thin well at least for sometime to come Oliver I think never really realized that his wife has a life of her own as well with his worthiness as husband and provider being enough to keep the family in check where he just does what he thinks best to secure a bright future for them but money issues uncertainty and suspicions about Susan's love for him troubles are never far away Had Susan's story been just the main focal point then there is every chance this could have turned out to be a flat epic melodrama but thankfully this is not the case as Lyman Ward who is our narrator is every bit as important to the overall structure with the perspective of his own self that helps to broaden the novels scope It's going over his grandmother's life that starts him to bring his own into the euation with a grown son who he may not see often an ex wife who he definitely does not want to see and little in the way of friends apart from those who help him around the house he is uite a lonely person where it seems looking into the past is his only way to find solace Stegner is technically brilliant here where swinging back and forward in time helps keep things from getting boring as at near six hundred pages I can't think of a single moment that became an issue Recognizing america's change both people and the land is what is what lies at it's core mixing the culture east with the barren west family history both young and old the power of reality and the frailties of big dreams this is one epic family saga that vastly exceeded my expectations and ranks as one of the grandest novels I will ever read


  10. says:

    For me it took a while for this novel to reach a certain momentum as the author introduces the reader to the narrator Lyman Ward He is a wheelchair bound historian in the process of writing a biography of the life of his grandparents Oliver and Susan Ward He recreates their lives mostly from his grandmother’s letters written in the 1870’s I’m a great fan of American Western fiction but I lean towards a pared down spare writing style; so this woman’s florid prose and descriptions – her very formal pretentious manners were often mind numbing for meOliver’s mostly failed career took them from California to Colorado Mexico Idaho and back to California My commitment to this novel deepened once they settled in Leadville Colorado As a Colorado native I can only imagine the severe weather and hardship that living in Leadville must have been in the late 19th century By this point a degree of disenchantment begins to set into what was once a marriage full of promise and feelings of affinity This story beautifully illustrates the dynamic forces at work in their marriage – an unlikely union between the genteel and educated Susan from the east and Oliver Ward an unworldly and straightforward mining engineer Susan Burling Ward left her New York life dedicated to art and literature to marry and follow Oliver Ward as he struggled to become a successful engineer in the West Over the course of their marriage scars from Oliver’s failed business ventures their constant relocations and the reality of late 19th century frontier life intervene These hosts of disappointments and unfulfilled goals culminate in a tragic incident that forever changes Oliver and Susan and with its ripple effect it is even perceptible in their grandson the narrator As he researches his grandparent’s complex relationship issues Lyman Ward increasingly gains some insight into his own failed marriageI was surprised by the end at my depth of feeling for this couple I think everyone who has come to the ending of a failed relationship can relate to this story It is a nuanced beautifully written novel about love betrayal and forgiveness or lack thereof It is also about the meaning of marriage and the struggles that exist between two people trying to wrestle with their own issues while holding on to what they have with each other – ultimately settling in for the long haul my interpretation of reaching an “angle of repose” in a relationship Epic elouent and thought provoking