Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Wallace Stegner’

The other book I checked out before the holidays because I’d meant to read it for some time is People of the Book. I really enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing and Nichole Bernier recommended People of the Book last fall when she read from The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. at Gibson’s. Since I loved two other books Nichole recommended that night (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans), I figured I’d like this one too.

And I did, even though it took me awhile to read it between holiday visits, parties, and events and post-holiday chores and errands. Like Caleb’s Crossing, I found People of the Book‘s historical details evocative and fascinating, and also as in that book, I liked Geraldine Brooks’ strong female protagonist, this time an Australian book conservator named Hannah Heath. Brooks takes readers back in time through several periods as Hannah inspects, studies, and prepares for exhibit the rare illuminated manuscript, recounting Jewish history through the Exodus, known as The Sarajevo Haggadah.

When the book opens, it’s 1996, the Bosnian war has just ended, and Hannah begins her work. A few traces people have left behind — a wine stain, an inquisitor’s signature, a cat hair, a bit of salt, an insect’s wing, and the space where clasps once held the binding closed — are the jumping off points for the haggadah’s story. Each character from each place and time was interesting, and Brooks brought them all to life in places she made vivid. Maps with dates on the end papers show readers “The Global Journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah” so you can follow it as you read or preview what’s coming.

People of the Book is in part the stories of people in various centuries who carry out Brooks’ fictional history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. It’s also a novel about a young woman seeking her own place in the world. Hannah’s mother, a famous neurosurgeon, disdains her work, at one point telling her she is nothing but a “tradeswoman” despite the fact that Hannah’s expertise and training sets her apart as one of the best conservators in the world. In the course of the book Hannah learns her father’s identity and meets an extended family she didn’t know she had.  It’s a mystery too, with the clues Hannah tracks about the haggadah’s history and a chapter about the manuscript’s whereabouts. And it’s a lovely recounting of the importance of art and books and the resilience of the human spirit throughout history.

It was also a terrific read in the evenings as a busy year drew to a close and the new one began. Brooks leaves readers feeling hopeful that the long story of human cooperation, tolerance, and friendship is at least as strong as its opposite.

Read Full Post »

Over the summer I posted my review of Nichole Bernier‘s debut, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., which was also in one of my first Mindful Reader columns. Last week, Nichole came to Concord to read at Gibson’s. During her post-reading Q&A, I asked what she’d read lately. She had several recommendations, but Crossing to Safety stood out because author Wallace Stegner is one of those literary lights I hadn’t yet read. Yes, even English majors/writers/librarians haven’t read everyone.

As Nichole said, this is a beautiful book. In a bit of bookconscious interconnectedness, the Modern Library edition has an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams, another author I hadn’t read until recently. I just mentioned Williams in my post about The Book of Mormon Girl.  I love these kind of links. Williams’ assessment is lovely and true: “The personal in Stegner’s fiction becomes the universal. Impatience turns to patience. Reservations become possibilities of transformation.”

Crossing to Safety is about Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang, friends who meet in Madison, Wisconsin in 1938 when Larry and Sid are both young English professors. It’s about their respective marriages and their friendships, and it’s also about ambition and dreams, hardships and how to live. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, WWII, and the culturally turbulent years after, it’s also very much an American novel, examining two paths to success in our country — influence and ingenuity.

Larry and Sally are Westerners (Sally a first generation American) with no money or family pedigrees. Charity and Sid are wealthy, well-connected Easterners. Charity insists Sid “publish or perish” even if it means abandoning poetry and his dreams of a simpler life in their rural compound in Vermont; Larry pursues his literary ambitions rather than chasing tenure.

Charity’s plans don’t always come to fruition, but the Langs’ landing is always soft. Larry succeeds as an author on his own merit but his road is made smooth by Charity and Sid’s largess and their connections.  He doesn’t seem to resent this situation, only to relate it.

The Morgans’ friendship with the Langs dazzles them: “We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull . . . .” A few sentences later he adds,”Both of us were particularly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.” Later in the book, Larry notes, “They worried about us more than we had sense to worry about ourselves. What they had, and they had so much, was ours before we could envy it or ask for it.”

And despite the imbalance, each couple benefits from the friendship. Charity is a matriarch who manages and bosses everyone. But she’s not unkind. Larry says, “She is often right. She is also capable of a noble generosity, and of cramming it on the head of the recipient like a crown of thorns.” Sally and Larry offer their friends a deep well of goodness and shared experience; they know them and love them, just as they are.

The book’s structure is a circle; it opens with the Morgans arriving in Vermont in 1972, summoned by Charity, who is ill. From there, Larry reflects on a lifetime of memories, on the meaning of success and failure, morality and its measure, friendship and marriage. In the end, we’re back where we began, feeling a little wiser for having gotten to know these remarkable characters.

Larry tells us,”. . . if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe time is circular, not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving.” A few sentences later he adds, “Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.” Reading Crossing to Safety felt just like that. Stegner’s luminous, sometimes searing writing makes this novel thoughtful, moving, and a very great pleasure to read.

Read Full Post »