Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

As the novel opens Larry recounts waking up in a cabin in northern Vermont, part of a family compound where he and his wife, Sally, have been coming for many years. It is Larry's voice that tells this story of a friendship between two couples. Larry and Sally meet Charity and Sid when Larry takes up his first teaching job in Madison, Wisconsin, where Sid also teaches. In an extended flashback we learn about that magical year in Madison, where the couples become friends right off, one of those rare mutual friendships where both sets of spouses become the closest of friends. Larry is driving himself to write stories and articles on top of his teaching load, while Sid and Charity are becoming ever more deeply entwined in the life of the college and the town.

With generous returns to the “present” of Vermont, we find out about the next phase of their friendship, before returning fully to the present. This is a novel that covers most of a lifetime, so of course the joys are tempered with sadness. Even so, it is a mild story. In fact, that is one of the reasons Larry the novelist gives for not writing about the four of them: that their lives don't include the kind of drama that modern fiction demands.

I'm grateful to my book club for selecting this novel. I hadn't read anything by Stegner before. I was delighted by the first part, feeling immediately that I was in the hands of a excellent writer who delivered the best kind of story-telling, best for my tastes anyway. I was never in any doubt as to where we were with the flashbacks. I loved the length of them, while the initial and intervening scenes in Vermont were sufficiently vivid that I never forgot where we would end up.

Yet as the store progressed I became more and more uneasy. Not because the golden youth of the two couples gave way to the inevitable griefs and losses of middle-age, but because of the way the two women were presented. Sally, stricken by polio—no spoiler; we learn this in the opening pages—becomes more and more of a saint. We never see her impatient or unhappy. She's simply perfect. I find it hard to believe in a marriage that is 100%, 24×7 sweetness and light. Charity, on the other hand, appears more and more of a witch as the story goes on, until the final scenes where she behaves despicably.

One person in my book club pointed out that she had to be the most fragile of all of them to behave so, which may well be true, but Larry doesn't allow her that excuse. She is simply awful and has destroyed his old friend, Sid, in the process. Unfortunately, this depiction of the two women ruined the book for me, being too close to the old madonna/prostitute way of judging women, that they must be one or the other. Aside from the implicit misogyny, the flatness of the characters was disappointing in an otherwise excellent book. Main characters should be multi-dimensional and complex for me to fully enjoy a book. It's a major plus when even minor characters are too. Here, everyone other than the four friends, even their children, are barely shadows on the story.

Another member of my book club told us that this novel, written when the author was in his late 70s, was really a memoir. She'd met the daughter of the real-life Sid and Charity and showed us photos of the Vermont camp. I've written before about the grey area between fiction and memoir. Knowing the story was drawn from life didn't change my opinion of it. I don't know to what extent this story was fictionalised beyond changing the names. The daughter said that Stegner allowed the family to read the manuscript and deleted scenes they objected to, which surprised me given the negative depiction of Charity compared to the saintliness of Sally.

I felt this flaw of the one-dimensional women the more deeply because everything else about the story was top-notch. I will try more of his stories to see if the depiction of women is a more general problem for Stegner, or if it was just a problem in this book where his feelings for Sid surely played a role in his presentation of Charity and those for his wife affecting his depiction of Sally. If anyone out there has read this book or others by Stegner, please let me know what you think.

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