Lyman Ward, a retired history professor, has gathered his deceased grandmother’s correspondences and is attempting to compose her biography. He has moved to her home and from his wheelchair bound angle attempts to piece together a life he will find, not the one he understood as a boy.
Stegner weaves a perfect tale from the narrator’s uncomfortable view as a retired amputee of 1970 to the unchartered west of the mid 19th century using letters from a grandmother to her beloved friend. The narratives are so vividly detailed that it is as if we are that pioneer, covered with dust and doubts, yet undaunted in moving on.
The narrator, Lyman Ward, has taken up residence at his grandparent’s home against his family’s judgment. He relies on a nearby family for his meals and bathing and resents his son’s well intentioned visits. Divorced, we learn what lead to the marital break and understand why he pores his diminished strength into his grandmother’s biography. A man diverting himself with the belief that others no longer see the man he still is.
Susan Burling Ward is based on the real life and letters of Mary Hallock Foote. How much is truth versus fiction is up for dispute. Susan, a genteel illustrator from New York marries a mining engineer and heads west believing a brief and successful life there will allow for her return to her artist’s life among her dear friends Augusta and John. Things do not work out quite as planned. Believing her husband to be a good, but uncultured man, she cringes at his dress and lack of refinement. They travel throughout the unchartered west and Mexico hoping for a break that never comes, raise three children and befriend a bevy of fellow pioneers. Had she looked at her husband rather than down her nose at him, Susan may have realized their relationship was more fragile than she treated it.
Oliver Ward was a determined man who believed in himself even when his wife no longer did. His taciturnity gave some the impression he was unaware of what went on around him, but he was more in tune than most others. Extremely hard working and devoted to family, he was a man who always gave the benefit of doubt to both friends and strangers. A true outdoorsman, he was also able to envision, create and execute great plans, from homes to mining maps and irrigation pipes. Even the strong, silent type find their breaking point, as Oliver sadly does.
Assistant to Oliver, Frank Sargent is also quite hardworking and devoted, but his heart longs for Susan. More intellectually suited than Oliver, he and Susan enjoy discussing literature and he poses for much of the work she does to help support their life in the wilds of the west. The attraction carries for many years, whether near or far and when at last, it seems destined, fate intervenes, yet tragedy ensues. A man struggling with his devotion to his friend and his love for that friend’s wife can only end in tragedy.
How living the faces were, and how eloquent the postures, of the miners who stood or sat waiting for the bosses to get through. What things the vagrant inadequate light did to a brown cheek, a mustache, the whiteness of teeth, the shine of eyes looking out their corners at her. It was like nothing she had ever draw, a world away from the cider presses and sheepfolds and quiet lanes and farmyard scenes and pensive maidens of her published drawings, yet this scene, lurid and dimly fearful, spoke to her. She felt it as a painting of saints in a grotto, or drinkers in a dark Dutch cellar. The curve of a shovel had the pewterish gleam of a Ten Eyck tankard, the very buttons on overalls had life.
And yet in her present mood she was half inclined to think manly rage a better response to wrong than the self-blame of a man who trusted too much and then refused to condemn.
Touch. It is touch that is the deadliest enemy of chastity, loyalty, monogamy, gentility with its codes and conventions and restraints. By touch we are betrayed, and betray others.
Spending any time with Mr. Stegner would surely be a delight. I would attempt to maintain a balance between adoration and doubt, but would surely attempt to get him to reveal a nugget or two of his literary skills. His obvious love of the outdoors would most certainly set the stage for a lunch among the gardens. Ah, the fresh air all the fresher in the company of a true lover of his environment.
My rating for Angle of Repose is a 10 out of 10.
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