Angle of Repose by Wallace Stagner

Traditionally, I have not been overly impressed by Pulitzer Prize-winning books. While good, more often than not, I am unable to put into words why the book is good. However, “Angle of Repose” was an entirely different experience.

From Goodreads:

Angle of ReposeWallace Stegner’s Pultizer Prize-winning novel is a story of discovery—personal, historical, and geographical. Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents’ remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America’s western frontier. But his research reveals even more about his own life than he’s willing to admit. What emerges is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American family.

I knew I was going to like this book right from the first page and I was right. I flew through the first 200 pages in a day and I couldn’t wait to finish it.

Wallace’s descriptive writing transports the reader into the character’s world until you can feel the dry heat on your face and the dust flying into your nose. There were times, I completely lost myself in this book.

Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in this book is Stegner’s description of Susan’s journey into the mine. Susan is an artist and writer who illustrates and writes stories about the places she settles in for a magazine in her old home town. So in an attempt to capture the experience of the miners’ work, they bring her down. From traveling down the shaft and walking down a tight tunnel to watching the miners work in a cavernous room underground, the reader feels that they are there the whole time.

What I liked about this book is how Stegner separates each section by the locations in the west the characters are located, so the reader travels with the characters and gets to experience it as they do.

I also liked how the book’s present and past is a parallel to each other, a complete compare and contrast. Throughout the book, Lyman constantly compares the world he currently lives in to the one his grandparent’s lived and makes notes on how it has changed.

“…It’s not quite true that you can’t go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely. We have too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places…”

Another notable theme in the book are the roles of men and women during this time and how the west impacts each of them. Right from the beginning, Susan is a strong female who has her own job and circle of friends. However, she leaves that world to marry an engineer, who despite all of his efforts can’t seem to get a break. Susan quickly falls into the womanly role but struggles to leave her past completely behind. The two begin to clash, as their roles reverse and Susan ends up supporting the family.  In the end, the two are able to find an “angle of repose” or the angle upon which a man or woman finally lies down, though as Lyman points out, that angle didn’t intersect until their deaths.

Through his journey into his grandparents lives, Lyman begins to realize that though remarkedly different, his life follows almost a similar path to them. He is struggling to maintain his independence as those around him doubt in his ability to care for himself. So it is only fitting that he should end the book upon these lines:

“Wisdom ….is knowing what you have to accept. In this not-quite quiet darkness, while the diesel breaks its heart more and more faintly on the mountain grade, I lie wondering if I am man enough to be a bigger man than my grandfather.”



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