I received this book last Christmas and must confess I was not familiar with this author. How could I have been unaware of Wallace Stegner? In 1972 he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Angle of Repose, and in 1977 he won the National Book Award for Spectator Bird. He was often called “The Dean of Wester Writers,” and maybe that’s a clue as to why I didn’t know him. A staunch environmentalist, he served as a special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
Stegner was a proud product of the West and much of his fiction is set there. With the glorious wealth of Southern writers we have, we Southerners may get caught up in that heritage and overlook other regional writers.
But onward to Crossing to Safety, which I’m finding to be a thought-provoking, elegantly-written novel. It’s hard to explain what is meant by elegantly-written, but when you read something written by a true master, it makes all the difference in the world. It’s the difference between Eudora Welty and John Grisham — you can tell the master writer from the person who just writes stories. With Stegner the sentences flow with richness and meaning that make you want to go back and read them again.
Crossing to Safety may be somewhat autobiographical. It’s about the friendship of two couples, beginning in 1937. Both husbands are university English professors. The novel follows their friendship through 40 years of career ups and downs, health problems, children, successes and failures. The two couples come from totally different backgrounds: Sally and Larry Morgan come from the West and have no money and no family; Sid and Charity Lang are from the East and have all that the Morgans do not have.
When they meet, the couples are new to the University of Wisconsin. The Langs take the Morgans under their wing, providing them with luxuries they otherwise wouldn’t have. When faculty cuts are made, the couples must part, but their binding friendship brings them back together. There are serious illnesses and other travails of life. Stegner’s prose gives pause to ponder what friendship means and why some friendships endure the test of time.
Stegner taught at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard and Stanford where he founded the creative writing program. The list of students he taught reads like a Who’s Who of successful Americans.