Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner)

Every once in a while, when I am stuck for what to read next, I will take a glance at a list of authors or award winners or something like that, to see if there is something I’ve missed. That’s what led me to Stegner’s Angle of Repose something like 20 years ago. I don’t remember much about it except that I was grateful to be reading something that was not set in a familiar place, like New York City or Chicago.

Recently, because of this article and prompting from a friend, I turned to Crossing to Safety, and I am so glad I did. Given all of the noise in the world today and the pyrotechnics so many authors seem to employ today (which I do enjoy at times), it was great to read a quiet story, simply and well-told.

Though the settings here are slightly more familiar to me (Vermont and Wisconsin) and I get antsy about reading books that feature English teachers as main characters, Stegner’s prose drew me in right away. He writes sentences like a master gardener and is able to approach serious and abstract topics – like friendship (between men, between women, between couples) – with the sincerity that is absent from our often overly ironic world. Consider –

From the high porch, the woods pitching down to the lake are more than a known and loved place. They are a habitat we were once fully adapted to, a sort of Peaceable Kingdom where species such as ours might evolve unchallenged and find their step on the staircase of being.

There is one major gap in time in the narrative which was initially jarring, but Stegner makes sense of it in a way that Ian McEwan either neglected or didn’t manage in the otherwise effective Atonement.

Though Stegner seems to want us to believe that his four main characters are ordinary people, that might be asking too much. Still, they proceed through their lives and life happens to them the way it does to the rest of us. The question Stegner seems to be asking is how we, as partners and friends, manage and adjust to the quietly unexpected, the things that are not the result of cause and effect, that can cause us to shout at the wind that we’ve been treated unfairly, and simply continue our lives.

I will tell you that I read the last 30 or so pages through a veil of tears, not just because of what happens in the story, but also because by then I was already nostalgic for a world I’ve never experienced, a world in which people, in the ordinary course of their lives, know the names of trees.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake

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