novel about life in West, published in 1972. It takes place in two different time frames. The first time frame occurs in late '60s Bay Area California, and consists of a wheelchair-bound historian, Lyman Ward, who is researching and writing a biography of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. Susan's story takes place beginning in the latter-half of the 19th century. She's a cultivated Eastern artist and writer who marries on a whim to escape a love affair gone wrong. Oliver, her husband, is a dutiful husband and father, and an expert mine engineer who lacks the benefit of a college degree. He's very principled, which results in some lost advancement opportunities and jobs. Even despite the hardships she faces in the West – which, Stegner wishes to show us, was never as "wild" as in the American pop-cultural imagination – she stays loyal to her increasingly emotionally distant, physically absent and world-weary husband, and also to her own creative principles. Susan's story is, to a very great extent, based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote
, which Stegner was researching at the time.
This novel provides examples of:
- A True Story In My Universe: The in-universe historian is researching his grandmother's letters ostensibly to write a book on them.
- Determined Homesteader's Wife: Susan's an Eastern girl who's used to the finer things, she's even received post-secondary education, but she finds herself with little money in a hostile environment. She makes the best of it, writes of her adventures for magazines back at home and keeps up with her art.
- Nostalgic Narrator: Lyman Ward is nostalgic for a more serious, more humane, more 'real' world to escape the confusing social changes of the late '60s; he finds this in his grandmother's artistic inheritance (papers, documents, pictures, paintings, drawings, etc.). This provides the Framing Device for the primary narrative of the grandmother.
- Prospector: While Oliver is an experienced mining engineer who usually works with very large corporations, he does have to do prospecty things, like guarding his claim with guns.
- Rebellious Spirit: Both the grandfather (Oliver) and grandson (Lyman) embody this.
- Samaritan Relationship Starter: While not explicitly an act of kindness, what brings Oliver and Susan together is a sense of his dutiful nature.
- Settling the Frontier: The main story is about the people involved in developing and exploiting the West through railroads, business, industry, education, laws, cartography, science, etc.
- The Stoic: Both the grandfather and the grandson are emotionally distant, Stoic figures who have a strong sense of duty and personal responsibility that they are always struggling to fulfill – and, which, ultimately, trips them up time and time again.
- Stopped Caring: Lyman displays this through his reclusiveness and his disconnect from his son.
- Twilight of the Old West: Arguably, the central thrust of the book. How did we come from Big Men mining stuff and Big Women writing stuff at the edge of the continent to a bunch of hippy-pansy speed freaks protesting just to get cred with all the activist chicks in Berkeley?