Thursday, December 2, 2010

Crossing To Safety.....How have I never read Wallace Stegner?

One of the unfortunate effects which comes from belonging to two book groups is that due to poor time management (ie too much computer and television) I rarely read anything other books chosen for me that sometimes have a feel of being "required" reading.

While in Lexington last month I was bookless, having left home with nothing but podcasts on my phone and a couple of newspapers.  A dash into Lexington's Books & Co. minutes before closing time had me under the gun to find something in a hurry.  I grabbed Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner for no reason other than it was on the particular shelf that I told myself to I had to pick something/anything from in order to make a snap decision so that the young clerk could go home!

Of course Parent's Weekend being the whirlwind time that it always is, I didn't read a page.  Before leaving town, I found a used copy of Midaq Alley (November's St Francisville group read) hiding in the stacks at the Bookery so I "had" to begin that on the drive home.

Fate intervened when thanks to misplacing my next "free time" book to read, Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray,  I turned to Crossing to Safety last week.   I'm not sorry that Dorian was hiding under the seat in the Mini!  Unless lightning strikes twice in the month of December, I've just finished reading my favorite book of the year.

How have I not read anything by Wallace Stegner prior to this one?  I enjoyed every page, each paragraph and sentence.... here's the opening which had me hooked immediately:
    "Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.  My eyes open.  I am awake.
      Cataract sufferers must see like this when the bandages are removed after the operation, every detail as sharp as if seen for the first time, yet familiar too, known from before the time of blindness, the remembered and the seen coalescing as in a stereoscope."

So what is it about?  Two couples and their friendship.  Ordinary people. If that sounds simple, the beauty of the book is that it IS simple.  There are children, parents and other acquaintances, but they are minor planets that don't especially matter to the orbits of the "stars" in this story.  There are no nail-biting cliff-hangers, violence, adultery, and no mystery to be unraveled.  While there are life altering occurences in this retelling of the intertwining of their lives, the crises are met and treated by Stegner with no more attention than a normal day.

Despite a lack of "drama", there wasn't a slow or boring moment in the entire book.  I want to be be the fifth friend.  I feel as though I know Larry and Sally and Sid and Charity.  I see aspects of myself in some characters and wish that I saw more of myself in others.

I've been debating whether I'd have liked this book as much when I was younger.  Hopefully I would have been capable of recognizing literary greatness.  But would it have spoken to me so deeply?  I might have projected that in my middle-aged years I'd have an abundance of friends, achieve greatness and only die when ancient and gray.  Now I'm aware of the rareness of true friends and the fact that one needn't achieve greatness or fame to matter to your family.  The addition of more birthdays and the loss of my parents has meant that I no longer need a telephoto lens to see the mortality that is ever present for all of us.  But being able to "identify" with a book is only one part of it's enjoyment.  I don't know any Russian counts or migrant workers but even as a younger reader, I loved War and Peace and The Grapes of Wrath.

Oh just go read the book!  Buy yourself an early Christmas present!  When I finish a few more of the books on my "To Read" stack by the lamp, I'll be looking for a copy of Stegner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose and maybe one of his environmental non-fiction books such as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian about John Wesley Powell.   I may become a Wallace Stegner groupie!

I have only one regret about my purchase of  Crossing to Safety .......

 I bought a paperback version and I've got my notes in it already.  If there weren't so many notes and definitions scribbled in the margins to transfer, I'd be looking for a hardback to put on the bookshelves.


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