The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner

The Spectator BirdA retired literary agent reflects on his life through a diary kept from a trip to Denmark 20 years earlier.   Stegner shows his finesse with managing to consistently deliver mot juste with The Spectator Bird.

The current time is 1970’s California in an area ripe with unwanted urban sprawl.  The past is 1954 Denmark where the Allston’s hope to trace Joe’s mother, but instead encounter a mysterious countess whose family secrets make their life look like a winning day at the races.

Joe Allston is not taking well to retirement, whether openly resenting the young or begrudging his body’s decline, he is not a happy man.  He agrees to recite from a diary to his wife that takes them both back to an unusual vacation mean to assuage their grief over the death of their son.

Joe’s antithesis, Ben Alexander, is a retired doctor.  At 75, he is a whirlwind who loves to entertain and take time for whom ever he encounters.  His insight both intrigues and annoys Joe.  A man who seems to have found that perfect balance in life.

Astrid Wredel Krarup, the Countess is an enigmatic figure who pulls the Allston’s into her life and all its dramas.  An ugly family secret that has ostracized her is eventually revealed after some digging unearths the suicides of both her parents.


I would like to be able to suffer fools more gladly.  I am too likely to be contemptuous of people when their minds don’t work at least as fast as mine.

It is possible to feel isolated even when you insist that that’s what you want.  

Who was ever in any doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off handbags and their Social Security checks?

He says that when asked if he feels like an old man he replies that he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him.

We’d take to the outdoors where Mr. Stegner would be most at ease and take a short hike and walk for a short while in silence.  At just the right moment, I’d try to get this artist to reveal his knack for portraying truthful characters worthy of sympathy even in the ugliest of lights.

My rating for The Spectator Bird is an 8 out of 10.

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Next up, Jack London’s Martin EdenMartin Eden


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