I am next to a businessman at a formal dinner. The conversation dries up after the soup. At a loss, I ask what sort of books he enjoys. Risky, I know. Either he won’t read, ‘except on planes when I buy whatever I can find at the airport’, or his answer will be as revealing as if I had asked him to tell me his life story. I am lucky. My businessman, more interested in fiction than foreign exchange, tells me, the book junkie, of a wonderful American author of whom I am ignorant. I am eternally grateful to him and still have the scrap of paper – menu on one side, ‘Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose’, on the other – which I stuffed into my tiny bag.
Wallace Earle Stegner (1909-93) was the founder and for twenty five years director of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program. Born in Iowa on his grandfather’s farm, he spent his boyhood in Saskatchewan, Canada, and his youth in Salt Lake City. Author of many novels and short stories, Stegner was one of America’s preeminent authors yet, as I discovered when I tried to buy one of his books, he is scarcely known in the UK.
Angle of Repose, winner of the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and therefore the best known, is at one level a fat epic novel about the struggle to build America and the myriad forces that went into creating the American dream. The protagonists represent the opposing but equally strong qualities required to build a new country. Susan Burling is a refined artist, rather precious, for whom books and education are prized above all else. Often she appears to have more understanding of places than of people. She clings to the importance of an East Coast education for her son and the manners that she believes go with it. The unlikely man she marries, Oliver Ward, is a handsome engineer, determined to run prosperous mines, build crucial irrigation projects or own the patent to a cement-making process. He is the strong silent type, an adventurer who carries a pistol when he comes to propose, by nature obstinate or ‘mulish’, a characteristic emphasized in the face of his wife’s superior education and sophistication.
Because Susan is an illustrator, it is through her eyes as she journeys bravely to her new life that we experience the dirt and dust, the heat and brutality of the emerging West. It is a place where men are hanged or beaten in what
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