Book Club Reflection: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

14 Dec

I absolutely loved this book. Like some others I’ve loved, it’s hard to put my finger on a reason, but I loved it. The language was beautiful and there was not a single sentence I would have taken out. I was glad to find much of my book group felt the same way.

Stegner was born in Iowa in 1909 and got his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1935. He worked at the University of Wisconsin (like Sid and Larry), Harvard, and eventually Stanford. He died in 1993 in a car crash. He’s very prolific, in both fiction and non-fiction and wrote late into his life.

What we liked about the book is that it was less of a drama. There was nothing spectacular about the characters’ lives, it was just their story and their lives born very plainly for us to read. It was the language of the book that was really beautiful. A lot of us felt that Stegner was talking about friends he knew in real life but knew he could never do them the justice they deserved. There’s a great quote on page 230 that reflects this.

“—Hallie, you’ve got the wrong idea of what writers do. They don’t understand any more than other people. They invent only plots they can resolve. They ask the questions they can answer. Those aren’t people that you see in books, those are constructs. Novels or biographies, it makes no difference. I couldn’t reproduce the real Sid and Charity Lang, much less explain them; and if I invented them I’d be falsifying something I don’t want to falsify.”

I love this so much. When I write a character for my book, it’s only as true as it can be. There’s no perfect reproduction of a person because that person is someone different to everyone they know. My impression of my husband would be different from his friends or his mother’s or his brother’s. One of our members thought that Stegner might have been in love with a woman like Charity, but that she didn’t seem real. To him, perhaps, she was as amazing as Charity, but to someone else, she might have been insufferable. She seemed, in Larry’s eyes, ‘over done’ and fake to some readers.

The title was cause for a good debate in our group. The quote comes from a Robert Frost poem, a stanza of which appears in my copy:

I could give all to Time except—except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.

None of us are quiet poets so if there’s a Reader out there who would care to interpret that for us, please do share. A separate explanation we thought of was how Larry seemed to feel out-of-place a lot. He was an orphan from the Southwest trying to make it as an esteemed professor in the Midwest. I’ve heard many times that people who move away from where they were raised feel like a pretender in the new area. Same goes for those jumping classes. Larry seemed to feel this for a long time. He didn’t feel he fit in with the Langs, commenting on what they had as far as family and money. Only when he’s in Italy, his debts paid off and his daughter away at school, does he finally feel he’s come into the life he’s been living for a long time. He’s found safety in his life with Sally and the Lang’s after a long time wondering.

Our group read Stegner’s other novel The Angle of Repose before I started this blog. The chapter where Larry tells about the beginning of Sid and Charity’s relationship reminded us of this book. In Repose, the writer imagines his grandmother and grandfather as they would have been when first married. Larry does something similar with the Langs. We thought it was beautiful and really well written. Many of us were reminded of a fairy tale.

A scene we all wanted to talk about was Sid burning the tea. Why would he do that? He was right for once, but he let her get away with not trusting him and made her right by default! It was so infuriating. Looking back, it was a prelude to him following her plan when he died. He fought her and gave in by the end. It was how he operated. That scene served well to help the reader understand Charity’s personality and her need to control everything. She always needed to be in charge. When Sid was in charge, boats capsized and people almost drowned. It was better when Charity was in charge.

We felt that Sally had the healthiest relationship with Charity. Charity tried to control Sally less than anyone else. The only time we felt Charity did control her was when she planned their first summer together in Vermont. Charity had the whole thing figured out and it would solve all of their problems; Sally would be crazy not to go along with it. There were little ways she asserted her influence over Larry, washing the dishes with Sid being a great example. Charity was just like her mother: the matriarch of the house. Nothing happened that she didn’t notice. She wanted Sid to be like her father: a rich professor who’s well respected. When he didn’t achieve that, she was upset.

There was a big flip in the relationship between the Langs and the Morgans. At first, the Langs were the providers, having the money and home to help Sally and Larry through a rough time in their lives. Later, when Larry has achieved fame with his fiction, he’s able to use his influence to help Sid get a job. This must have been unsettling for them all. Maybe it’s part of why Sally and Larry moved back to the Southwest. I think they were uncomfortable with how the relationship was developing.

We couldn’t talk about this book without mentioning the strongest character; Sally. The descriptions of her in Europe blew our minds. It was obviously hard for her to walk and that she did it on cobblestones and up European staircases is amazing. Sally and Larry help each other through life and keep each other grounded and this is the biggest similarity between them and the Langs. They are all bound to their spouse indefinitely. Sid brings this up toward the end of the book when speaking to Larry.

“…I admint I’ve taken a kind of comfort from your bad luck. I’ve seen someone else tied and helpless, though for very different reasons. You’ve been constant, a rock, and I’ve admired you for that. But I’ve wondered what your life might have been if Sally hadn’t got polio. You were upward bound when we first knew you, headed up like a rocket. Success might have taken you away from her—you wouldn’t have been the first one. You’ve done a lot anyway, but maybe not all you might have done if you hadn’t had the greater obligation of looking after her. I think your marriage did to you something like what mine did to me.”

I think this passage is beautiful and sad. It speaks to the love each has for their wife, but also makes it seem that they could have been more without the woman in their lives. I don’t think that’s true of either character. I think both were the men they were because of their wives, not in spite of them.

It was a great discussion. In January, we’ll meet to discuss Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude and I get to lead the discussion! WOOOO.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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