Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Angle of repose

Angle of repose (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Stegner‘s Angle of Repose is a traditional historical novel, but it is unique among such works in that it seems to be the only critically significant novel set in the American West during the late 19th century.  The level of historical accuracy and detail is amazing, and is due to the fact that Stegner (1909-1993) was a historian and a novelist.  As part of his research, Stegner relied upon the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.  However, if you read the Penguin trade paperback edition (featuring a photograph on the front cover of a large tree with a ridge of mountains in the background) you will not find any mention of Foote.  To worsen matters, the publisher includes the standard disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual persons…is entirely coincidental.”  If that disclaimer leads you to believe that Stegner made up the entire story, then you have been misled.  You may be misled again if you read the Wikipedia entry for Angle of Repose.  The site’s anonymous author(s) adopt a different view, stating that Stegner’s “use of uncredited passages taken directly from Foote’s letters” is controversial.  At this point, it would appear that either everything in the novel is purely coincidental, or that Stegner engaged in some sort of literary theft, resulting in a Pulitzer.Fortunately, a member of the book group dispelled the controversy by sharing some information from her edition, explaining that the Foote family wanted to share the letters, but also wanted to remain anonymous.  Well, if you are Stegner, what do you do?  You have to credit your source, but your source wants to be anonymous.  The answer is that Stegner compromised by including a short paragraph immediately prior to the table of contents, saying, “My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors….This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives….”  That seems like a reasonably accurate and honest way to acknowledge his debt to the Footes while simultaneously keeping them anonymous–at least for a while. Structurally, Angle of Repose is a story within a story.  We are reading a narrative told in the first person by Lyman Ward, who is sitting in his study during the present day, narrating the story of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, into a tape recorder while he interacts with the other characters in his own life.  Perhaps a more accurate description is that this is a frame story since Stegner is using the story of Susan Ward to tell the story of Lyman Ward.  Although the terminology is a bit slippery, it is never confusing as to who the narrator is or about whom we are reading.

That is not to say, though, that Stegner is above confusing us in other ways.  He does this for at least one reason:  Stegner is a historian and historical research can be confusing when there is a shortage of information, leaving the historian with nothing else to do but speculate.  As a result, Lyman goes back and forth between imagining his grandmother’s life and quoting her letters directly.  This, in turn, is a subtle way of presenting us with the problem of the unreliable narrator.  Sometimes, there are simply gaps in the timeline.  In addition, Lyman is unreliable because of his love and loyalty toward his subject matter:  the grandmother who raised him.  Can we reasonably expect a completely accurate history from a someone who is emotionally affected by what he is researching?  Can we rely upon him to tell the world the truth about his grandmother?  I don’t believe so.  I like to think that my own grandmothers were saints, but they probably weren’t.  Lyman says as much about Susan, but he cannot bring himself to depict his grandmother as someone capable of sexual infidelity.

(WARNING:  If you have not read the book yet, but intend to, you should stop reading this blog entry NOW.)

We, as readers, however, can discuss Susan Ward’s temptations and did so during the book group’s meeting.  Most of the group felt that Susan’s tryst with Frank was limited to emotional infidelity, and stopped short of sex.  Others could see how Frank’s suicide after the funeral for Agnes was due not only to the fact that he was the reason for Susan’s neglect of her child, but because the child was his, too.  It comes down to how well we can rely upon Lyman to tell us the truth about his grandmother, and I do not believe that he can.  If Stegner wanted us to see Agnes as clearly the flesh and blood of Susan and Oliver, he would have described Agnes in a way that made her similar in appearance and temperament to her siblings.  Tellingly, he did not do that.  Agnes was different.  She was different enough so that she could have been fathered by Frank.

Finally, I enjoyed the fact that Stegner includes approximately two dozen literary references in Angle of Repose.  On page 421 of the Penguin edition I described above, Stegner has Susan attempting to read War and Peace which, given her character’s cultured background, makes perfect sense and is historically accurate as Tolstoy‘s masterpiece was published in 1869.  Is Stegner showing off a bit?  If he is, I can’t say that he is more guilty of that sort of thing than a lot of other authors.  If you love books, how can you refrain from referring to them in your own book?

The book group’s next selection takes us from the arid lands of the American West to The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller.



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