Thursday, November 8, 2012

Crossing To Safety, by Wallace Stegner

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is a heroically realistic novel that explores in sensitive detail the intimate dynamics of long term relationships, seen through two aging couples who share a close friendship over many decades. This is a deeply human story about emotional dependency, helplessness, humility and feelings of personal failure.

Crossing to Safety was Wallace Stegner’s (1909-1993) last novel, published in 1987. It doesn’t read, however, like a last novel or literary valedictory. If anything the novel has the feel and aesthetic power of a mid-oeuvre work. Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1971 novel Angle of Repose and was a committed and energetic conservationist. His interest in natural history certainly comes out in the text of Crossing to Safety. His life ended, quite senselessly, in an automobile accident when the author was eighty-four. Such a waste. He was apparently quite fit and healthy right up to his end.  

The story is a simple one, told in the first person by the aging Larry Morgan. He recounts a four decade friendship between himself and his wife, Sally, and the Langs, Sid and Charity. They meet when both men are starting out as university academics and both wives are pregnant. A friendship for life is struck up. What the novel really explores in minute detail is the nature of the two relationships, the weaknesses and strengths of the four individuals within the two marriages. There are dominant partners, dependent ones, the physically maimed who need constant care and the patient who endure it all, but are by no means perfect. Overwhelmingly, there is a sense at the end of these lives that the dreams and aspirations of youth have been brought short by a lifetime of reality. These characters have not necessarily failed in life, but neither have they really succeeded.

This is an amazingly, almost heroically realistic novel. Stegner doesn’t pull back from describing the mundane and humbling aspects of intimate human relationships. Men are often shown to be needy and vulnerable. Sid Lang, for example, is described as being physically strong but deeply dependent on his take-charge wife, Charity. There are other ironies. Sally, the wife of the narrator Larry Morgan, is crippled by polio, but has a powerfully calming presence during a crisis. Larry must act as a nurse to his dependent wife, but he is in turn emotionally dependent on her.

Crossing to Safety is a novel about small, everyday lives. It’s chief power lies in its realism and honesty. The book’s intimate details about emotional dependency and helplessness often cut very close to the bone and give you that slightly embarrassing feeling of having over heard something personal, as if you’d come across someone’s personal diary.

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN:  9780141188010  RRP: $22.95