16 August 2009

Climbing The Mountain

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I bought my copy of Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain on a trip to Denver in 2006, where I stopped at that great bookstore The Tattered Cover during a few minutes of down time. I like Stegner, and there I was in the Rockies, and the book jumped out at me, and then it sat on my shelf until last year. About a year after that, I’ve finished reading ithaving consumed many, many other books in between. That sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Actually, it is. I am here to report that The Big Rock Candy Mountain was well worth both the wait and the effort. A semi-autobiographical novel about the Mason family’s challenging existence in the first three decades of the 20th century, the story is more layered and expansive than other of Stegner’s workssuch as Crossing to Safety, a book that is very dear to my heart—and less angry than the Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose. Both of those books are the work of a more mature author; The Big Rock Candy Mountain was published in 1943, when Stegner was just 34 (and it wasn’t even his first book).

This is also a multi-generational story, with the kind of hardship and long journeys that I usually associate with the great Russian novels of the 19th century. Harry “Bo” Mason begins as the escapist son and ends as the repressive and alienating father, and throughout there are pockets of stability and (very minor) wealth punctuating the Mason family’s life. There is a devoted if tortured wife, and two sons working to figure out their own lives in the middle of the messes created (over and over again) by a rum-running father. Mostly, however, there is poverty—and trouble.

Amidst all that, there are three things that make this a beautiful book. The first is the role that the American west plays in the story, as a series of secondary actors reaching from the plains of the north to the mountains and then desert further south. The Masons cover terrain from Minnesota to Washington, and from Salt Lake City to Reno. The environment can be brutal and barren, or placid and blue-green like the Mason’s house on Lake Tahoe, but it always needs to be respected for its inherent strength and character. Even the descriptions of winters along the Canadian / American border in the early part of the century—when cars were still a real novelty—are thrilling.

The second element is the complicated way in which Stegner has bound together a story of great sadness with that of an inherent American optimism. The Big Rock Candy Mountain clearly owes a small debt to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939). But where Steinbeck used his Joad family to argue a particularly pro-union, pro-worker perspective on Depression-era America, Stegner’s Mason family is focused on a very internalized sense of self-reliance. Bo Mason is a muscular man even in old age, a former skeet shooting champion, who sees in the world challenges to overcome through sheer force of will. But this isn’t some Ayn Rand-ian caricature; Bo is the kind of all-American man one can relate to precisely because he struggles with his feelings, instead of simply rejecting them. He considers himself the bearer of bad luck, someone who needs to keep looking for his lucky breakand as much as he might blame others for his problems, this comes only in the narrowest sense of bad people doing malicious things. Mason’s America is a land of great opportunity, if only he can figure out a way to take advantage of it.

The third aspect of the book that makes it so beautiful is its evolution into a bildungsroman in the final third, as the author’s characterBo’s younger son, Bruce grows up and away, and over time becomes the family’s only surviving member. Anyone who has ever had a close relative with whom they have had a challenging relationship can probably relate to Bruce, who never quite came to terms with either the hate or the love he felt for his father.

In her New York Times review of Crossing to Safety in 1987, Doris Grumbach wrote “Clearly Mr. Stegner has not gone unnoticed. But neither is he a household name, as he deserves to be.” She was right. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is not summer beach reading, but it is the kind of book to embrace on a quiet winter night by a fireplace, and with a comfortable chair and a tumbler of scotch it will yield rich rewards.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home