Literature / Angle of Repose

Wallace Stegner's 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?