This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel alternates between two stories. In the present day (1970s) Lyman Ward, confined to a wheelchair by a bone disease that is gradually fusing him into a statue, has taken refuge in his grandparents' old home in Grass Valley. His wife having deserted him with the onset of his illness, he is cared for by Ada, the third generation of her family to work for the Wards, while being pestered by his son to move into assisted living. The retired historian refuses, choosing to stay on in Grass Valley, going through his grandmother's papers and telling her story.
It is this story that alternates with Lyman's. Susan Burling grew up in a cultured home and as a young woman “was in love with Art, New York, and Augusta Drake.” The two women met in art school and stayed on in New York, building lives full of famous artists and writers and working on their own art. This life was cut short for Susan when she married a mining engineer in 1876 and followed him to the West.
In spite of the coarse lodgings and—in all but one camp—lack of company that shared her interest in the arts, Susan always wore the elaborate dresses and whalebone corsets of her Edith Wharton past. She threw herself into the work of living while also helping to support the family with her art and writing. Although a brilliant engineer and inventor, Oliver Ward lacked the political knowledge and ambitious dishonesty that might have made him rich. So Susan trailed after him from one camp to another, as he worked equally hard at trying to support her and provide the kind of surroundings he thought she deserved.
Susan's story fascinates me, this gently nurtured, artistic woman having to live in a one-room cabin among rough miners. With moving descriptions, Stegner gives us a hard look at the stereotype of a pioneer woman. I loved his descriptions of the camp at Leadville where many engineers trained at Harvard and Yale congregated to work on the mine and on government surveys, providing Susan with an enviable salon. However, learning about her life through the eyes of her historian grandson, we are kept at a remove. Lyman guesses at her feelings and the empty spaces in her letters. We are constantly pulled back into his life and his thoughts about Susan and Oliver.
Writers often circle back to themes and constellations of characters, so it is not surprising, perhaps, that this book, like Crossing to Safety, is about paradises that have been lost because of a woman, a woman of remarkable abilities, whose husband, though of equal abilities, is a failure, unmanned by his desire to please his wife. Susan is certainly a more complex and more sympathetic character than Charity. Other characters are barely sketched in, Lyman not having the insight given him by Susan's letters, articles, and other writings. The places where they live become vibrant characters, though, the landscape, the people, the homes.
The flow of the story is as accomplished as the descriptions. What I admire most about Stegner's writing is the way he slides seamlessly between past and present. In some cases he gives us Lyman talking about the letter he's reading, then a quote from the letter itself (Susan's voice), before going into dramatized scenes continuing Susan's story. In other chapters, he moves from a first person description of Lyman commenting on something in Susan's life, to a brief third person narrative of where we are in Susan's story, before plunging fully into dramatized scenes. Sometimes he alternates chapters, devoting one to Lyman and the next to Susan, but there is always something about Susan at the end of Lyman's chapter to ease the transition. He rarely comes back to the present except with a new chapter.
I was a little disappointed with the ending, mostly because I found Lyman's story so much less interesting than Susan's, but overall this is an absorbing and beautifully written book.