The local branch of the public library has a summer reading club. I discovered this in time to read the next selection: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. He's one of those writers whose names I know, but I haven't read him. Now I have.
In participating in a reading club, I thought, I would meet like-minded people, hear lively and thoughtful comments, and perhaps argue a point or two. Instead, I was oddly disappointed. Oddly? Yes, oddly. There were about twenty people present--over half had not even opened the book or were only at mid-point. OK, so the group represented that same group of high school students I taught who also did not do their homework. And the but? But they were interested enough to come listen to a discussion.
Crossing to Safety--titles always fascinate me, especially ones that seemingly suggest themes, as this one does. The book is about two couples, oh so different, but oh so sympatico. Their lives intersect at the end of the Depression and crescendo several years later when one of the wives contracts polio during an important hike on their mutual vacation. Stegner steadily builds his story from their initial meeting as young professors and wives on the University of Wisconsin campus.
Larry Morgan, the narrator, is a successful writer and becomes a published novelist during that first year. It's not enough to get him tenure. Meanwhile, Sid has gobs of inherited money, a big house in-progress, and holds parties and takes in house guests. He gets tenure, though he is little published. He is, however, a gifted teacher.
One of the first and most serious conflicts is between Sid and his wife Charity, a severely manipulative and controlling woman. She runs Sid's life, making him follow a path he would not have chosen and by-passing the life of the gentleman farmer who ruminates and writes poetry. Sid does not get to live the life he wants.
When Sally becomes stricken with polio, the story halts, then jumps forward many years to the end. Larry fills in the story through his conversations with one of Charity and Sid's daughters. Even at the end of the story Charity controls how it plays out. Was that safety for Sid? Or was it stagnation? A gradual death by artistic strangulation?
In one tiny moment Larry reveals his own manner of strangulation--his wife's crippledness. He has described her through the novel with great compassion and love, but now, in this one tiny scene in which he describes her jerky movements, he shows, I think, a deeply buried, mild revulsion. There's another method of revealing this revulsion and it is through disguise: At the point of her illness, the novel skips ahead a multitude of years. The reader is given a couple of wonderful scenes, but limited in comparison to the earlier sections. Or perhaps I'm all wrong--I hope so.
Am I glad I read the novel? Yes. What was my overall impression? Writer pulling the strings of his creations, including himself. Mostly, when I read, I think of the story. In this case, I thought of Wallace Stegner, the writer, aware of his presence and his omnipotence, his own struggle to assert control over his own life.
So, who crosses to safety? What is meant by the title? I offer this: Sid Lang, so long repressed by his domineering wife, disappears during the last chapter, gone to the woods while his wife has her last say in all matters. Larry finally sees him, asking, "Sid?" Sid's reply? "Yes." Yes, now to life as he would want it, yes to his wife's final act of control, just yes.
Books on my very ambitious TBR list (*denotes read)
- *Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox
- The Odd Women by George Gissing
- The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson
- How to Get Your Child to Love Reading by Esme Raji Codell
- The Cod Tale by Mark Kurlansky
- In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
- *Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
- Dag Hammarskjold by Elizabeth Rider Montgomery
- The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael L. Munk
- Children of Strangers by Lyle Saxon
- Spiritual Writings by Flannery O'Connor
- Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque by Gilbert H. Muller
- The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
- Flannery O'Connor's South by Robert Coles
- Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
- Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey
- *Vincent de Paul by Margaret Ann Hubbard
- Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
- A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
- The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
- Readicide by Kelly Gallagher
- *Ruined by Paula Morris
- Say You're Not One of Them by Uwem Akpan
- Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clezio
- Silence by Shusaku Endo
- *The Assault by Harry Mulisch
- Kari's Saga by Robert Jansson
- *The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal
- Western Skies by Joseph Conrad
- *The Giver by Lois Lowery
- *Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski