Annotation by Kat Kambes
Very eloquently written study of early California frontier life, particularly focused on an artist and the mining industry as seen through the exploration and foraging of the grandson. Stegner does a number of things that hold you deeply engaged through this lengthy depiction. Structurally, the book is two books entertwined. The first is the story of the young couple Susan and Oliver who make their way west during the early days of mining, and their eventual life together, the ups, downs, disappointments and accomplishments. Susan is an artist and Oliver an engineer. Susan is genteel and Oliver is enraptured by her gentility. This juxtaposition of the lives of Lyman Ward’s grandparents and his own life, which has been excruciatingly limited, and the veracity of the times play against each other to create tension.
The second book is that of the “author/narrator,” Lyman Ward, who is writing the history of his grandparents whilst being restrained in a wheelchair and having to learn to accommodate himself to a new life, one in which his wife has betrayed him and his son does not want to be burdened by him. These two texts work against each other and reflect each other throughout the book, bringing our historian writer, Lyman Wagner (grandson of the esteemed Susan and Oliver) closer to the truth about his own struggles, inhibitions and limiting attitudes which have “crippled” him.
There is an additional world created in this book, which is that of Grass Valley, its inhabitants and the times which are affecting them. Somehow, it is this third world that helps us to keep reality with Lyman Ward, our narrator, and keeps him from becoming an unreliable narrator. We seem to be able to rely upon him because he is cross-comparing in his research the differences between then and now (60’s at the time) and positioning himself between them.
The book utilizes knowingly the “Doppler Effect” – where the grandmother is continually longing for things in her past that are receding further and further into the distance an eventually lost and juxtaposes this as well against Oliver’s very forward looking, advanced thinking, toward the future.
The portrayal of the west in its full glory and beauty is seen while at the same time revealing the myth of the west as a kind of brave new world, full of gold, wealth, and opportunity. We see it’s fraying at the edges. We see it at the “Angle of Repose” – to the utmost angle before its loose surface begins to crumble. A metaphor encapsulating the book within the title.
There is a lot of reflecting that occurs throughout the book, Susan’s being restrained to be a “lady” – even in the most unseemly conditions, Lyman’s being restrained in a wheelchair. Susan having to have men do all for her, Lyman having to have others do for him. Susan being an artist. Lyman being a writer. There are numerous parallels throughout the text, that interconnect the story lines on a very subliminal level.
The artistry of Stegner to “paint” the locations are remarkable. He does some stunning work in drawing you into the scene, one sense, two senses, aural, visual, physical. Over and over again he meticulously drives the story with these “painted” portraits of the wild west, much as his Grandmother would have seen them. He has a unique ability to depict something in such stunning detail that the clarity is astounding. To this effect, the landscape itself becomes a character in the book, each location having its own definite color and contributing its own strengths and weaknesses to the story.
He mixes into the storyline, clippings, letters, journal entries that help drive the narrative. Through the letters Susan writes to her best friend back east in the “best circles” of artists and writers, we are provided a lens with which to see and experience her precariously complex nature and how conflicted she is about social standing and or this new spirit she is experiencing in the west. She wrestles with these issues. There are also communications with publishers and the on-going artistic projects, so that while she has an unrelenting longing to return to the civility of the east, she is truly becoming in every sense of the word in the west, the artist and writer that captures her place in the world. There are suggestions of infidelity, and it is in this grappling with the possibilities of Susan’s human frailty that Lyman must confront his own doggedness and grapple with forgiveness. The fact that these facts are never completely disclosed, but alluded to, seems to heighten the effect.
The cultural heritages that she was able to experience and engage with were on a much deeper level than her eastern counterparts experience of foreign culture, and she was able to capture this in her art. Stegner brought a great complexity to these characters and wove the stories together in subtle tones. There could have been less perhaps of the historical scenes, and brought the two novels into more direct proportion, but I got the distinct feeling that the “larger life” of Susan and Oliver was part of his overall thematic quest, as his critique of the “modern” students of the present day, seemed to on one hand move in the quality of looseness, he considered that a process of dilution, whereby people were losing a sense of personal and particular identity and sensitivity to each other. So on another level this was also a critique of the modern relationship, and its inability to endure and begs the question of dedication.