My Book Of A Lifetime: Crossing to Safety, By Wallace Stegner

Gillian Slovo
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The Independent Culture

Not only a book of a lifetime, Crossing to Safety is a book that comes at the end of a long lifetime of writing. Wallace Stegner, who also wrote short stories, essays, biographies and histories, published his first novel in 1937. He was 62 when, in 1971, he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose: he was 78 when Crossing to Safety, his last novel before his death, came out. It's a miraculous book, written with the wisdom of age but without seeming old. A novel based on character that has immense narrative power.

The story, as related by the aged Larry Morgan, is one of marriage and of friendship. At its centre are two couples: the Morgans, Larry and his angelic wife Sally; and the Langs, the weak but charming Sid, and the vibrant and impossibly bossy Charity. It is Charity who starts the friendship and who then dictates much of what ensues. Rich and confident as the Langs are not, she almost literally sweeps them off their feet. As Larry says: "We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe." In a virtuoso scene – one of many – the Morgans find themselves basking in the Langs' golden light while another, less fortunate couple can only glare in envy from the sidelines. Thus is a life-long friendship born.

But it's a friendship not entirely of equals. While Charity makes the running in her marriage and between the couples, Larry gains success as a writer of which Sid can only dream. Told in flashback through a series of incidents, we journey with them into the problems that beset their lives: the physical challenges that Larry's wife, Sally, faces, and the threads that weave themselves thickly through the Langs' relationship.

As the novel progresses, the ebullience and unwavering determination that made Charity so initially attractive take on a darkening tinge. In two more stand-out scenes – one where she makes her husband unpack a whole expedition's worth of supplies in order to find the tea he knows is there, and another where a badly injured man will not do her bidding – the nightmare that such a forceful character can impose on those she loves unfolds. Even her making her husband do something as trivial as the washing up is given menace by our growing understanding of what is wrong. And in the final pages of the book, as the dimensions of Charity's last web are etched, we stand, like Larry, as witness to a woman who will continue to control even unto death.

Wallace Stegner, whose descriptions of landscape and nature are wondrous, is equally at home with character. Long after the book is done, Charity will stick in memory: recognisable and strange, lovable and detestable, and both of these in almost equal measure. A book of great maturity, this one, and not to be missed.

Gillian Slovo's new novel, 'Black Orchids',is published by Virago

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