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First Sentence: Now I believe they will leave me alone.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)
It turns out that A Bend in the River was a literary brutality of a kind that I've never encountered before. It took five books to finally cleanse my palate and replenish my enthusiasm for The List. Not even the absolute certainty that there are masterpieces not far down the line could bestir me to read anything else that might potentially be as dispiriting as A Bend in the River.
Five books, though, including one that I've been wanting to read for a couple of years, and which didn't disappoint, and I was finally ready for Angle of Repose.
Except that I wasn't ready at all. The subject tags that I found in the book's library catalogue entry weren't exactly alluring: disability, family history, the West. Everything to suggest pretentiousness.
But instead, I found the book that I've always wanted to write: a personal history of someone's life, someone small but well-loved and somehow distinguished.
In this case, that someone is Susan Ward, a 19th century illustrator married to Oliver Ward, an engineer (!) whose calling is to shape the American West. Susan's biographer is her grandson Lyman Ward, a retired history professor now crippled by a bone disease (and hence The List's first disabled main character), and trying to make sense of his own life by exploring its context. Susan was a genteel Victorian lady, intelligent and talented, who followed her husband around the western frontier of the United States, as he tried to get them established. Lyman is living and working in the place that Oliver eventually did establish, dictating his grandmother's story from letters that she wrote and papers kept in her office.
Stegner paints a vivid picture of a woman that I think exceeds what Arnold Bennett did in The Old Wives' Tale (though Bennett had a better follow-through and more consistent story—Angle of Repose has a sort of weak ending). Stegner also gets props for his treatment of the engineering profession, respectfully but not worshipfully, and his own personal Saskatchewan connection, i.e. a few years of his childhood spent in Eastend.
Having grown up on the Little House books, this book felt something like a mature version of those, with a much deeper emotional focus, and more responsible themes involving the built vs. the natural environment, the ethics of development, and the horrible things that people do to each other.
But I have to admit that a big part of why I loved this book so much was that I brought it with me when going up north to a jobsite for the first time. The work, the remote location, and the demographics meant that I could identify with both Susan and her husband, in many ways even better than I could identify with my coworkers (it's sometimes tough to be an engineer who reads). At times, this book felt like my only ally, one lone comforting voice in the midst of a wilderness. Now I'm starting to get settled in a bit better, but I'm glad I had this book with me that first time.
And yes, I'm madly in love with Oliver Ward.
- - - - -
Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn't believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on. What I established is already buried under layers of tape. Before I can say I am, I was. Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other. Am or was, I am cumulative, too. I am everything I ever was, whatever you and Leah may think. I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were—inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones (that part unfortunate), plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial.
Even places, especially this house whose air is thick with the past. My antecedents support me here as the old wistaria at the corner supports the house. Looking at its cables wrapped two or three times around the cottage, you would swear, and you could be right, that if they were cut the place would fall down.