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'Crossing to Safety': Wallace Stegner's poignant classic turns 25

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The beating heart of that world is Battell Pond, the Lang's "discreet and understated" family compound in Vermont, like something "out of a Hudson River School painting, uniting the philosophical-contemplative with the pastoral-picturesque." It is the antithesis of a trophy property, where even conveniences as basic as telephones are eschewed with a self-imposed austerity. Stegner nails the "simplicity expensively purchased and self-consciously cherished, a naturalness as artificial as the Petite Trianon" that characterize such enclaves of Old Money, rich in simple pleasures. But, as in Poussin's 17th-century pastoral painting, even in Arcadia, there is death. 

Stegner's alter-ego novelist, Larry, narrates the story of this lifelong friendship, which is not without its tensions. The novel opens with the Morgans' return to Battell Pond after what we learn is an eight-year absence. The time is August, 1972, and Larry, whose successful literary career has more than fulfilled expectations, is now 64. He and his wife, long hobbled in body but not spirit by polio, have been summoned back from their retirement home in New Mexico to "the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness had its headquarters."

They have come, despite the hardship of the trip for Sally with her cumbersome leg-braces and crutches, because their dear, imperious, generous, captivating, and exasperating friend Charity is dying of cancer. Entirely in character, she wants to stage her exit with the same rigorous control with which she organized picnics, her husband's disappointing career, her children's lives, and everything else. (The couples' offspring, by the way, are conveniently peripheral through much of the action, left with caregivers for stretches of time likely to astonish modern-day sensibilities.)  

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