Angle of Repose

ISBN: 0141188006
ISBN 13: 9780141188003
By: Wallace Stegner Jackson J. Benson

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About this book

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 Lyman's research reveals more about his own life than he is willing to admit.

Reader's Thoughts


I have read this book twice so far. The first time, I was a single college student. The second time, I had been married about five years. I'm sure I will read it again a few more times. And I'm sure that the more years of marriage I've logged, the more I will get out of this book. Marriage, and what it takes -- and takes out of you -- to make it work is the main theme of this book. Stegner has some profound things to say about it. But even before I could personally relate to the story's main theme, I found the book beautiful and haunting. Stegner is a real artist. His individual sentences are carefully crafted. He masterfully winds together multiple plot lines, which span centuries, and uses them to enrich and illuminate each other. He also creates a vivid sense of place in his descriptions of the 19th century American West. The characters are not easy; they are multi-dimensional, prickly, and flawed. But how could you write a realistic book about marriage with perfectly likable characters?


For me, it took a while for this novel to reach a certain momentum as the author introduces the reader to the narrator, Lyman Ward. He is a wheelchair-bound historian in the process of writing a biography of the life of his grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward. He recreates their lives, mostly from his grandmother’s letters written in the 1870’s. I’m a great fan of American Western fiction but I lean towards a pared down, spare writing style; so this woman’s florid prose and descriptions – her very formal, pretentious manners were often mind-numbing for me.Oliver’s mostly failed career took them from California to Colorado, Mexico, Idaho, and back to California. My commitment to this novel deepened once they settled in Leadville, Colorado. As a Colorado native, I can only imagine the severe weather and hardship that living in Leadville must have been in the late 19th century! By this point, a degree of disenchantment begins to set into what was once a marriage full of promise and feelings of affinity. This story beautifully illustrates the dynamic forces at work in their marriage – an unlikely union between the genteel and educated Susan from the east and Oliver Ward, an unworldly and straightforward mining engineer. Susan Burling Ward left her New York life dedicated to art and literature to marry and follow Oliver Ward as he struggled to become a successful engineer in the West. Over the course of their marriage, scars from Oliver’s failed business ventures, their constant relocations and the reality of late 19th century frontier life intervene. These hosts of disappointments and unfulfilled goals culminate in a tragic incident that forever changes Oliver and Susan - and with its ripple effect, it is even perceptible in their grandson, the narrator. As he researches his grandparent’s complex relationship issues, Lyman Ward increasingly gains some insight into his own failed marriage.I was surprised, by the end, at my depth of feeling for this couple. I think everyone who has come to the ending of a failed relationship can relate to this story. It is a nuanced, beautifully written novel about love, betrayal and forgiveness, or lack thereof. It is also about the meaning of marriage and the struggles that exist between two people trying to wrestle with their own issues while holding on to what they have with each other – ultimately settling in for the long haul (my interpretation of reaching an “angle of repose” in a relationship.) Epic, eloquent and thought-provoking!


The next review is for Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. This was our latest book club read for the month of February. It is a beautifully written, eloquent, descriptive book. It has been highly, highly recommended to me by several people...readers who I respect. Most of them have said that it was the best book they have ever read. Wow! That is saying a lot. This book is a very long and epic tale of a husband and wife who move to the west in the late 1800's to settle. This was good news to me. I love long, fat, epic, historical fiction...and it was. It is told through the research of the this couple's grandson, Lyman Ward, a historian, who is now in his fifties and handicapped. He begins to research his grandmother's life for a book he is writing. A lot of the story is told through letters that were sent between his grandmother, Susan, and her best friend, Augusta. It is a story of the marriage of Susan and Oliver and the hardships, joys, and disappointments they experienced with a backdrop of the scenic west...California, Mexico, Colorado, and Idaho.This is a Pulitzer Prize winning book. The writing is beyond beautiful. Stegner reminds me a bit of Steinbeck. I really liked this book...was it the best book I have ever read? No. But it was certainly one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. I love the way the story unfolds...letters, documents, flipping time periods (the late 1800's and the 1970's). Stegner doesn't sugar coat the characters. They aren't larger than life. They are human and not always sympathetic. I found myself disliking Lyman, Susan, and Oliver at different times thorough out the book but I grew to care about each of them.I rate this as Excellent for the writing alone. I was a bit disappointed with the ending. I felt like I had invested a lot and was some what let down and wanted to know more but that would've added another 500 pages to the book!!


A poetic story with rich prose and thought provoking metaphors.....perfect for Book Club discussion. It's on my all time favorite book list. I was amazed at the author's attention to details with such accuracy and percision from the historical Western frontier life down to the very flowers in bloom. This book is a treasure.The marriage between Oliver and Susan Ward was filled with adversity, love, disappointments, devotion, temptation, and tragedy. Both characters were morally exceptional people living in the Western frontier but had real life weaknesses and struggles. Sometimes with 19th century characters it is hard to identify or connect, but Stagner makes them come to life, transcending time. I didn't want the book to end and it was almost 600 pages! Oliver is of the highest moral character and a devoted husband. He is determined to make her dreams come true and goes to great lengths in pleasing his wife. At times I felt Susan didn't deserve him, but I still loved her character and really indentified with the struggles she faced. Throughout their marriage Oliver holds her above him. Unique to the time period, she often comes to the rescue financially with her talents. (writing and art) She is a very loyal and strong woman who makes the best of really difficult circumstances. Often torn between the life she chose and the one she left behind, she doesn't fully appreciate or understand the wonderful man she married. Their personality differences created an empty space within her and craving for friendship. Then there is Frank..... *sigh* the "incurable disease"....It broke my heart to read of his passionate love for her, a married woman he could never have. Frank provided the friendship and compatibility she lacked from Oliver. (who was often "wordless" to her) Slight SPOILER here: I was torn between later events in the novel that pulled me between my love for Oliver and the romance developing between Susan and Frank. The scene of Oliver ripping out the rose bushes made me sick inside with grief for the betrayel and tragedy. Preceding that, I had been led the opposite direction, desiring Frank to at last have the woman he has loved for so long. Susan's fictional character was developed from a real life pioneer; Mary Hollock Foote (1847 - 1938). The authentic letters in the book to "Augusta" are from Mary Foote and the author creates a fictional story based around them. A beautiful and haunting love story. The angle of repose will take on several meanings, one of which is the rest Susan will finally have from her grief and remorse when she is in the grave. **********************************************************From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaAngle of Repose is a 1972 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Wallace Stegner about a wheelchair-bound historian, Lyman Ward, who has lost connection with his son and living family and decides to write about his frontier-era grandparents. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. The novel is directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West. Stegner's use of substantial passages of Foote's actual letters as correspondence from his fictional character Susan Burling Ward caused a continuing controversy. Fictional Characters in "Angle of Repose" Lyman WardLyman Ward is the narrator of the book, a divorced amputee with a debilitating disease that is slowly "petrifying" him. A retired history professor, in the early 1970s he is dictating the book, the biography of his grandmother Susan Burling Ward, to tape. Fiercely independent, he lives alone in the house where Susan Ward died and in which he spent time as a child. As he dictates, he is fighting off intrusions into his life by his son and other well-meaning people that are concerned by his being alone when he is wheelchair-bound. Susan Burling WardIn her youth, Susan Burling (the Mary Hallock Foote-based character) was a promising writer and artist connected with some of the leading lights in New York culture. When she and Oliver Ward meet and fall in love, she leaves the promise of New York to follow him, expecting to return. The contrast between her life in the American west of the second half of the 1800s to that of her best friend in New York is a constant thread through the novel. Lyman depicts her frustrated by the loss of her writing/art career and disappointment with their position in life, but a strong character able to adjust to the circumstances. Oliver WardBased on Mary's husband Arthur DeWint Foote, Oliver is a bright, straight-forward, honest man who has focused on supporting the family he loves. A mining engineer, he moves all over the West following jobs to Colorado, California, Mexico and Idaho. Some times he is on his own, but when he feels he can, he has his family join him — often in the most primitive of homes in the wildest of places. His honesty limits his progress in the rough world they find themselves trying to succeed in. Lyman sees a struggle between this limitation and Susan's desire to recreate some of the "culture" of the east that she gave up upon her marriage. Historical Characters in "Angle of Repose"The novel is thickly populated with real, although minor, historical personages, giving further realism to the narrative. A "Who's Who" of American mining engineers of the late 1800s make their appearance, including Clarence King, Samuel Emmons, Henry Janin, and Rossiter Raymond.**********************************************************Inside Flap Copy:Winner of the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published in 1971, Angle of Repose has also been selected by the editorial board of the Modern Library as one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.***********************************************************I like this review:By vabookreader "Jeff Hotz" -Wallace Stegner's _Angle of Repose_ (1971) is undoubtedly a rich novel, but it is a challenging book. Many reviewers have commented on the slow pacing, so it is advisable to take up this book braced with patience and energy in reserve. The book must be as much mined and dug through as read pleasurably. The novel, however, bestows a rich ore, which makes the task of finishing it a reward and genuine pleasure.The book is set in Grass Valley, California, during the spring and summer months of 1970. The novel's protagonist, Lyman Ward, is a 58 year old disabled, physically ailing professor of history who is retired and has taken up residence in his long deceased grandparents' old home, Zodiac Cottage. Despite ill-health, Lyman Ward undertakes to write a biographical novel focusing on his grandparents' lives, Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward, from 1868 to 1891. Susan Burling, Lyman's grandmother, was a prolific writer, sketch-artist, and genteel young woman from Milton, New York. Her husband and Lyman's grandfather, Oliver Ward, was a bright mining engineer whose career took his family to California, Colorado, Mexico, Idaho, and back to California.The grandparents' marriage is a tension of opposites: the talented Eastern sophisticated woman who thrives on high culture and the arts has married a reserved Western explorer and adventurer. Each has entirely different expectations, and the novel explores whether these differences are reconcilable. The title of the novel, "Angle of Repose," refers, at least in part, to this tension as does the metaphor of the keystone(discussed near the end of the book).Lyman Ward sketches out the narrative of his grandparents' relationship by reading his grandmother's letters, viewing her sketches, and reading her publications. The novel skips in time between 1970 and the later nineteenth-century. The settings of the novel also shift, as Lyman ironically follows his grandparents' travels while he struggles himself confined to a wheelchair. One remarkable quality of the novel is its ability to capture all of the voices of lead characters past and present. These voices come alive in the act of Lyman's memory and his will to inhabit and understand his grandparents' lives.Here are four final comments about this novel. First, Stegner's command of the English language is always precise. (He uses words like "tumescent," "succubus," and "satyriasis" to create clear images; consulting a dictionary makes Stegner's sentences glow). Second, the ending of the novel is an intense and unique resolution to the plot. Third, in addition to the layers of the novel looms the fact that Stegner based the character Susan Burling Ward on a real person, Mary Hollock Foote (1847 - 1938). This raises all sorts of interesting questions. Fourth, Lyman's comments on the 1960s counterculture are perceptive commentaries.A metaphor for this novel as a whole is the mineshaft. The reader emerges from the novel, after the toil of tunneling, bearing ample riches and the raw material of lingering ideas to further refine.


Fellow Goodreaders know that feeling of exhilaration when a new entrant pushes its way onto a top-ten-of-all-time list. Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winner from 1972 is my most recent example. Of course, Goodreads reviewers also know the pressure involved in justifying the choice. So what makes this one so good? As befits a top ten inclusion, here are ten factors that come to mind. 1. A Damn Good StoryLyman Ward is a former professor of history with a bone disease that put him in a wheelchair. He moved into his grandparents’ house in California where he’d spent much of his boyhood. With a strong personal interest and a research historian’s skills, he studied the lives of his grandmother, Susan, and his grandfather, Oliver. She was an artist and later a writer transplanted from her genteel life in New York to be with her husband, the earnest engineer, out West. He specialized in big projects: mines, irrigation canals, etc. His integrity prevented the material success he would have liked as a source of comfort for Susan. She created what culture she could in mining towns, and had become known for her illustrations and magazine articles about life in the West. Stegner had permission to use real letters of a writer and painter from that era, lending the narrative an authentic voice. As their family dramas unfolded, Lyman had a few related episodes of self-discovery, all very cleverly done.2. Complex Characters What book could ever be considered great without an interesting cast? These players were decidedly not stick figures – more like Rubenesque (actually, that’s not the exact opposite I was going for, but you know what I mean). Starting out, Lyman seemed like a stock character – the crusty recluse – but he becomes more central and more nuanced as the book goes on. The way we see his grandparents through his eyes tells us a lot about him. To be honest, early in his narration I was put off by his invented dialog and false omniscience, but later, after he copped to this as a way to make them more real, I actually liked the device. All the characters, the ones on the periphery included, seemed very credible, with emotions that rang true and unexpected depths that only a first-rate writer could have imagined.3. Interesting HistoryIt’s an impressive laundry list of things the curious reader can learn more about: technology of the time (from Oliver’s various engineering projects), culture (the arts community in NY, pioneer life in the West, the opulent part of Mexico where Susan and Oliver almost stayed for a job), and manners (subtle social conventions, shady business dealings, dirty politics). Lyman, with his background in history, was a very knowledgeable narrator. He had remarkable tunnel vision (literally, since his disease prevented him from turning his head) trained on his subjects.4. Conflict Clashes were easy to come by when the refined East (civilized society) met the rough-and-tumble West (opportunity). Tightrope walks were performed between desire and moral responsibility, the practical and the romantic, and in the case of Lyman and a curvy young assistant, the stodgy academic and the free-spirited hippie. There was conflict in Lyman’s concept of himself, too. Was he more like his grandmother or grandfather? It turned out to be a key question.5. Blissful(?) InstitutionsThe give-and-take of a marriage was a central theme. Susan was described as “more lady than woman” and Oliver was “more man than gentleman.” This made for some tension. As Stegner himself said in a Paris Review interview: Susan is more talented in many ways than Oliver. She shows off better. But while I wrote that book, thinking that I was writing about her as a heroine, I came to the end of it thinking maybe he is the hero because there is a flaw in her, a flaw of snobbery. She doesn’t adequately appreciate the kind of person he is, or the kind of work he does. That’s a story not about either men or women, but about a relationship, a novel about a marriage.On top of this, Lyman reflected on his own former marriage. Would he forgive his ex-wife for what she did to him? Should he have done more to prevent it from happening in the first place? More good questions both for him and for us.6. Metaphorical Resonance “Angle of repose” is an engineering term referring to the angle at which rocks and soil settle when tumbling down off a slope before coming to a stop. Lyman’s goal was to see “how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.” Another way to think of it may be as the point at which the slights that we suffer lose their animating force and finally give way to acceptance.Stegner spells out a second metaphor so well that I’m willing to risk further attention-squelching length to include it. There is another physical law that teases me, too: the Doppler Effect. The sound of anything coming at you – a train, say, or the future – has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates. But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a somber sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne.7. Powerful DescriptionsWhat was clever here was how natural it was for Susan, the artist, to describe and even embellish the new sights she would see out West. Her eye for detail never got tedious. Of course, we know to credit Stegner for excluding any word that didn’t pull its weight. There were countless little analogies, too, that made for a pleasant experience. For example: “Bunion footed, wearing her look of a supposedly house-broken dog which is called upon to explain a puddle on the floor, Mrs. Briscoe labored toward them.”8. Organic Philosophy I like reading bigger thoughts, but less so when they’re without context. If they appear as natural outgrowths of a story or a character profile, I’m all in. With A of R I’m spoiled for choice looking for examples. Here are a few, ranging from aphorism and homily: It is an easy mistake to think that non-talkers are non-feelers. You'll do what you think you want to do, or what you think you ought to do. If you're very lucky, luckier than anybody I know, the two will coincide. Home is a notion that only the nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend. Civilizations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations. The rebels and the revolutionaries are only eddies, they keep the stream from getting stagnant but they get swept down and absorbed, they're a side issue. Quiet desperation is another name for the human condition. If revolutionaries would learn that they can't remodel society by day after tomorrow -- haven't the wisdom to and shouldn't be permitted to -- I'd have more respect for them ... Civilizations grow and change and decline -- they aren't remade.9. Awfully Good WritingI may have made my case already with the examples I’ve included, but let me add that this is more than just pretty language we’re talking about here. There’s plenty of substance to it, too. To my mind, Stegner is a true master of the craft. Every sentence has heft, yet never at the expense of flow. Early on I thought Stegner is like a grown-up when so many others are mere children in comparison. His candle-power shines brightly on every page.10. Opportunities for Growth Hokeyness aside, how many books do you read and wonder, “Gee willikers, am I possibly becoming a better person?” If you’re drawn to intelligence, please give Lyman, his grandparents, and most of all Stegner a try. If cumulative insight into human experience floats your boat, ships ahoy.


I loved this book even more the second time around. In my opinion, this is the perfect novel. I don't have the expertise to identify the exact narration technique, but to have the narrator, Lyman Ward, not only share his beloved grandparent's 100 year-old history from his 20th century perch, providing both redemptive hindsight and worrisome foreshadowing when needed, but also his own story as an amputee with a debilitating bone disease bitterly protecting his lonely independence, furnishing the relevance and motive, is brilliant. I know many other authors must also do this. It's probably considered common by those in the know within the world of literature. However, I read a lot of novels and I can't think of a single book I've ever read that has done it better than Wallace Stegner in Angle of Repose. Angle of Repose dramatizes the life of Susan Burling Ward, a talented illustrator raised in an Eastern Quaker home, and her marriage to Oliver Ward, a kind, intelligent but tragically unlucky engineer trying to make a name for himself in the West. Through Susan and Oliver's first fourteen years together, the reader travels to mining camps in California, Colorado and Mexico, and eventually to pre-Statehood Idaho, painting an absolute masterpiece of American West history. Although Lyman Ward is a fictional character in a fictional novel, his passionate defense of the importance of history, could and should be well quoted by actual scholars in the field. Even his short but wonderfully persuadable argument against communal economics and relationships should be studied. They are that profound.But, as the narrator states, this is really a story about marriage. What allows certain couples, who universally tumble down life's uncertain slope together, to reach a point where the tumbling stops? For rocks and debris in the engineering realm, it's called the angle of repose. There is an eventual stillness, for good or for bad, when the motion or hurt or progress or momentum stops. Perhaps it is balance and harmony. Or, perhaps it is staleness, stubbornness and unrelenting grudges. I'm sure the meaning of "angle of repose" could be presented either way. I lean towards the calm, comfortable stability definition but maybe the stationary rocks aren't content with their quiet.I hope to return to this novel again and again. It's not a happy one. In many ways, there is a melancholy post-reading that I still can't shake. But, there is also a beauty in words, thoughts and vivid description that makes me clap for joy. I love this book.

Scott Axsom

Fiction moves me most when it’s most piercingly honest – when it reveals to me places in my heart that I’ve been afraid to recognize the existence of. Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” examines the part of us that's reluctant to forgive and that cannot seem to learn how to forget. The book is hauntingly true and ruthlessly introspective and it left me, at times, gasping for breath at the beauty of its lyricism - it could serve well as a master class in honest writing. Stegner writes from the perspective of a not-so-old man who has become recently severely disabled and, in turn, divorced. This wounded soul is spending time at his grandparents’ farmstead, among his grandmother Susan’s copious letters to her best friend, Augusta, who represents everything Susan left behind to come west for her husband’s career as a mining engineer in the 1860’s. Though Susan achieves a storied career as an illustrator and as a writer, this is a story of the longings and regrets she can’t seem to leave behind. “Angle of Repose” shines a light into a dark corner that exists within all but the most enlightened among us and Stegner unburdens his literary soul within these pages in a way that lesser writers fear. He reminds us that we shall all be in need of forgiveness at some time in our lives and that we’ll be well-served to bear this reality in mind when probing the place within our own hearts where forgiveness dwells. “Angle of Repose” is, without question, the best novel I’ve read, displacing “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Great Gatsby”, which shared that place in my thinking until now. I don't always understand why certain books won the Pulitzer but this novel leaves no room for doubt. It's close to perfect.


Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972 for this book. Goes to show you that you should disregard my reviews! Absolutely no taste, whatsoever. This book took me over two months to read because I kept putting it down. Down being the operative word here. It was not only a "downer", but lacked the skill of a good editor. In today's publishing world, Stegner wouldn't have gotten away with such a ponderous, heavy book. This was written in the "old way," with the author making it apparent that he had an eternity to tell his story. There are tons of good reviews about Angle of Repose on this website that tell about the plot, and so I'll leave that to you to discover. Really, when I was done reading it I felt like a heavy load was taken off my back, so I truly don't want to revisit the story. Trin, who gave a review on this website, expressed my feelings: "This fits into the category of "Books I feel I ought to like but really, really don't."


I really waffled about whether or not I liked this book, or whether it drove me crazy. On one hand, the prose is impeccable. Tasty. Delicious. Crisp, and smooth, and elegant (like a cameo) all at the same time. It was certainly easy to picture each setting (even the one near me, Leadville!) with fresh eyes, seeing the country in un-developed splendor. It's the kind of writing that until you read it, you don't realize how much contemporary fiction is missing. The story is unique -- not your typical prarie romanceOn another hand, I found the narrator to be (at some moments) rather annoying. He talked about 'feminine fingers' messing in his 'guts', and gave no legitimacy to women's feelings, really. He had given a 'good life' (no matter that he had been silent, distracted, and unemotional in his marriage) to his first wife, and couldn't understand why she'd left. He completely dismissed a twenty-year old girl's thoughts with no more than a pat on the head, because she was a girl, and because no one 'now a days' could have any idea worth discussing. I think he was a marvelous character in general, but he rankled me with his narrowmindedness. He also charmed me with his love of the past, and his love of social morees, social propriety, and gentlemanliness. So there you have it.SBW, the main character in this book was by turns charming, snobbish, unhappy, and boring. The book chugged along with disappointment after disappointment, but I suppose that's an accurate picture of life back then for some. I kept waiting for them to 'catch a break'. The ending was marvelously revealed... it was a book where I couldn't 100% exactly tell what was goign to happen until the very end. And annoying that every man she came across was madly in love with her, but whatever.I loved side characters in this book almost more than the main characters (which was more like watching a train wreck anyhow). All in all, I'm glad I read it. It was a test in patience, but I think the pay offs were worth the journey.


I tried to read this many years ago before I was married and I couldn't get into it. Or, rather I got half way through it and gave up. This time around I loved it. HA! I've matured. In fact, there were a number of things that impressed me about this book:1. It's written from a woman's point of view and not once did I ever think to myself 'a woman would never say/think/do that' Good job, Wallace!2. Realism, realism, realism. The first time I read this book it was recommended to me by a then-single young man who told me 'this book taught me more about what marriage will be like than anything else I've ever read' I must say I concur with that sentiment. Having been married now myself for eleven years, I can say that this book captures what constitutes the 'reality' of marriage. I mean, the marriage depicted in this book is between two very different people who really jumped into it without knowing each other well at all. They probably each would have been happier with someone else, but the majority of the book takes place in the Victorian era when you didn't have the option of divorce, or at least most didn't consider it. But it was so impressive how this marriage was neither deeply tragic, nor deeply romantic, it was two very fallen people who disappoint each other at times, support each other at others, endure heartbreak together, and ultimately find that though they don't have a fairy tale connection, they do have a life together. If most of us are honest, that is what our marriages are like. So. I loved reading something that acknowledges the complexities of marriage, that honors how complicated it is. On the other hand, unlike a lot of contemporary works that try to portray marriage and family, it didn't leave me cold. These are two people who do have high ideals, are serious about what's important to them, and who try to live honorable lives, though they are only human. 3. God bless Wallace Stegnar. He is the American West's literary genius and he gives credence and crediblity to the people and landscape that I know and love.


This was lovely. It’s rich with beauty and ruin. There’s something missing from the heart of it, though, that was missing— for me— from the heart of Crossing to Safety too. Perhaps Stegner and I just aren’t soul mates, as much as I’d agree with him on the way the world works. “My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandmother’s side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”


ANGLE OF REPOSE is the type of sumptuous inter-generational novel I love to read with richly-complex characters; an exquisite sense of place; and a stimulating historic context. Two nineteenth century American worlds -- the European-leaning settled, "civilized society" of the East and the pioneering, being-settled, resource/developing/exploiting frontier of the West -- combine, clash and accommodate in symbolic miniature in the sixty years long marriage of the New York-leaning artist/writer Susan Burling Ward and her mining/construction/hydrologic engineering husband Oliver Ward.Grandmother Susan's life is painstakingly researched and reconstructed by her wheel-chair bound, historian grandson Lyman Ward, whose own challenging heartbroken "present" in the 1960s adds dimension to his grandparent's married life, the heart of the book. Lyman seeks to understand himself and his life better by looking to his own family's past. Along with Lyman, readers follow the genteel Quaker Susan from Milton in upstate New York as she (mostly) joins honest, word-spare, engineering visionary Oliver wherever his career takes him: New Almaden, California, a rough, mining settlement; the California beach community of Santa Cruz; the remote, high-altitude area of Leadville, Colorado; the colorful, Spanish-speaking Michoacan, Mexico; the canyon and mesa spots near Boise, Idaho; and then the Sierra Nevada mining city of Grass Valley, California. The Pulitzer level master writer Wallace Stegner first published this story-within-a-story in 1971. The center of fictional Lyman Ward's research is a cache of grandmother Susan's letters from the lifelong correspondence she had with her beloved Eastern friend Augusta. Lyman prints these letters for readers with his own commentary. Author Stegner likewise had a cache of letters for his own research --letters written by a historic personage born in 1847 named Mary Hallock Foote, who was an author-illustrator known primarily for her chronicles of mining towns in the American West, a hard-to-escape similarity to the fictional Susan Burling Ward. Quaker Mary Foote, also like Susan, was married to a mining engineer whose career took the Footes to the same geographic places as Stegner sent the Wards. Although within the novel itself, there is NO reference made to the historic Footes, my ANGLE OF REPOSE included an introductory article with background information and explanation. According to the article, there is extensive correspondence showing that Stegner did seek and receive the blessing of one branch of the Foote family to use Mary Foote's actual letters in the novel. However, the family did not want the Foote family identified, so Stegner did not fully attribute the source of "Susan's" letters. Post-publication, however, there erupted a mini-controversy from another branch of the Foote family, who felt Stegner had copied and used the true letters of Mary Foote within an extensive fictionalization of their ancestors' lives that reached slanderous proportions.Readers interested in learning more about the historic personage Mary Hallock Foote, upon which the fictional Susan Burling Ward is based, may wish to consult Foote's work itself at Project Gutenberg or the book A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote, edited by Rodman W. Paul, and first published in 1972, the year following ANGLE OF REPOSE.


Count me as the latest member of the Wally fan club. Angle of Repose is the one and only Stegner I've read, but will be the first of many.From the easy writing style, historical background of the US West and the story itself, Angle of Repose grabbed my attention and didn't let go. I loved that Stegner used a handicapped narrator, Lyman Ward, subtly bringing in the doubts, problems and hardships he faced in comparison to his able-bodied grandmother, Susan Ward. The title, Angle of Repose,is an engineering term brought into play throughout the book. Lyman's grandfather is an engineer dragging his family from job to job across the West and Mexico. I love the easy portrayal of the characters warts and all. The characters are so realistic I feel that I could live next door to them. I have this same feeling when I read Steinbeck's works such as East of Eden, although I would much rather live next door to the Wards than the Trask family.

Joachim Stoop

4,5 stars. I was already crazy about Stegner after my all-time favourite 'Crossing to safety' and was confirmed by Angle of repose which is even more epic and contains the same magnificent language, metaphores, characters, story development and wisdom. Oh, how wise is Stegner! It loses 0,5 star because it could have used some more editing. Some storylines and episodes are just too long and detailed. Part of it is functional and needed for the build-up of the general story, some of it I find unnecessary. Still, in total: a must-read


According to a well-known essay by William Gass, it is not a good thing for any ambitious writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, because the prize has consistently been awarded to mediocre writers, and thus brands each of its recipients with the stamp of mediocrity. There are, however, (as even Gass admits) the occasional execptions where the Pulitzer jury slipped up and gave the prize to an outstanding work. Angle of Repose is, in my opinion one of those exceptions, in fact it is a very big slip-up as it is a truly exceptional work of fiction.The novel has a lot of reviews both on Librarything and on Goodreads, so I assume that it is somewhat popular. I suspect, however, that this popularity extends mostly to readers from the US only - I at least had never heard of Stegner before, and I consider myself decently informed about US fiction in the 20th century. Part of this at least might be due to the fact that Angle of Repose is essentially a Western – a Western, however, in the sense that Heaven’s Gate is a Western, i.e. more concerned about what the American West during the days of the pioneers actually looked and felt like, as opposed to contributing to (or even concerning itself with) its myths and legends. Angle of Repose, then, is for the most part a historical novel, describing the fate of Susan Ward and her husband Oliver Ward in the American West at the end of the 19th century. But it is a contemporary novel as well, because it also tells of how Lyman Ward, a retired history professor tries in the late sixties of the 20th century to piece together the history of his grandmother Susan from letters and other documents. The latter, although taking up somewhat less of the novel’s pages, is not just a framing device for the former, but both strands mingle and interweave intimately and form a single narrative from which one cannot lift one part without undoing the other.While Angle of Repose is not a depressing book, it is a sad one – the beginning might be exuberant, in places even giddily so, but its palette grows gradually more sombre, and by the end has shaded into a deep melancholy. This novel, in other words, is an elegy, and on at least three distinct levels. On the first and most obvious one, it is an elegy for a place and a time, namely the Old West. Stegner never attempts to make them seem romantic or glamorous, but pretty much every line of the book is infused with an ache for the loss of the pioneer spirit and bemoaning the complancency and self-centredness of present day America. Of course, this might all very well be just the point of view of the narrator whose perspective is likely tinged by his own, not inconsiderable problems - chiefly, a crippling bone disease and the unfaithfulness of his wife. And the latter leads us to the novel’s second level of elegy: It also is an elegy for a way of life, namely traditional monogamous marriage. Stegner presents us with three generations of partnership in The Angle of Repose: First, the marriage of Susan and Oliver Ward which passes through many hardships, struggles and separations but lasts for sixty years until both partners die within months of each other. Second, the marriage of narrator Lyman Ward and his wife Ellen which founders at the first major crisis (the diagnosis of Lyman’s incurable disease and his wife subsequently leaving him for his surgeon). And third, the marriage between Lyman’s temporary secretary Shelly and someone called Larry Rasmussen (who we never get to see first hand) which seems not really a marriage at all and to be over before it really started. Again, there is the narrator’s not exactly impartial perspective to be considered, but there is a clear line drawn here and it is one of decline.It is becoming clear that perspective and point of view play a large role in this novel, and this leads us to its third level of elegy: Angle of Repose is an elegy for a literary form, namely the realist novel. I don’t think there is any doubt that the book’s undertaking is basically realist – it is giving the reader a portrait of the American West, and one of unparalleled vividness: The tired clichés of people coming alive, of descriptions jumping off the pages of a book – they seem to have been invented after a reading of Angle of Repose, the writing is just so incredibly colourful and evocative. But at the same time, the novel is highly reflective about this evocation; while conjuring up the sights of the Old West, its sounds and smells, its sensations and tastes, it never lets us forget that this is merely a reconstruction, and one based on a very slim foundation of facts. Lyman Ward, the narrator who pieces Susan’s life together, makes no secret that a huge part of what he is writing are things that he extrapolated or simply made up from his grandmother’s letters and the occasional news clipping. Overall, it is a constant theme of the novel that even writing as vivid as this never can catch up to reality, and it comes to a head in the way the novel handles the climactic catastrophic event in Susan’s and Oliver’s life, namely by mostly burying it in ellipsis and leaving it to the reader to imagine what precisely might have happened. And what resolve there is for the present-day narrative thread happens in a dream, and one that explicitely references Kafka, to boot. The novel realizes its own impossibility and fittingly collapses into itself rather than that it ends.And that is not even all, there is an additional level to it - as if not quite trusting fiction to do the job on its own, Wallace Stegner based the story of Susan Ward very closely on the real life of writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, and even went so far as to incorporate excerpts from her letters into his own novel (sparking off a controversy which apparently has not quite simmered down even today). Thus, it requires historical documents to give the novel its authenticity, and its claim to realism rests on some ten percent of quoted letters, with the rest being so much smoke and mirrors. This of course raises the question of why one would write a novel at all, and not a work of non-fiction (of which Stegner himself wrote several) or, in this particular case, edit a selection of Mary Hallock Foote’s letters (as someone else did after the interest in her work that Angle of Repose created) – a question that the novel does not really answer, and a question that maybe is without an answer, at least for as long as one sticks to the premises of realism.All of this might give the impression that Angle of Repose was a difficult novel, but that impression would be quite wrong – while it is a highly reflective novel, it is also an immense joy to read (or at least it was to me – skimming through some of the reviews, quite a few of which call it boring, your mileage may vary), mainly because of Stegner’s writing which raises vividness to a new level and really pushes the boundaries of how evocative prose can be. Angle of Repose is full of descriptions – they are not long, but very numerous, and you can open the book on any page at random and will invariably come across something – a piece of scenery, a perspective on a building, a glimpse of a face, the reflexion of light on water – something observed with startling precision and caught in a beautiful phrase. There is much to admire in this novel – its evocation of the American West, it’s thoughtful composition, it’s fully rounded characters which are deeply flawed as humans are but still likeable – but what really makes it stand out and had me add it to my list of favourite novels was the precision and power of its writing, that had me stumble from one wonderful description to the next until I was dizzy from delight, literally drunk on Stegner’s language.

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