Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Classics Club & Buddy Read)

In that fine place, in the ripened Indian summer weather, those two once again choose us. In circumstances where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking, they declare their generous pleasure in our company and our good luck. What we felt last night when we fell into a laughing bearhug and fused our frosty breaths outside their door, we feel again on this placid hill. We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves.

91Vq1lzeOaLHaving read and loved Stegner’s Angle of Repose years ago, I had high hopes for his 1987 novel Crossing to Safety. I also owned a copy so choosing it for my March Classics Club pick was a no-brainer. I’m happy to say my expectations were matched and I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. Augmenting my pleasure was doing a a Buddy Read with Pauline of Smithereens blog, and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. I don’t know that I provided any great contribution to our email and Twitter conversations, but I was grateful for the company and the added push to read it.

Stegner is a beautiful writer – thoughtful, measured, insightful about human nature. His detail for the natural world is also a delight, anchoring his characters in a very rich and real place. This novel centers on two young academic couples, Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. The action takes place in both the Midwest of the Great Depression, in Madison, Wisconsin, and also forty-some years later in rural Vermont. We follow the two couples as they bond very quickly and go back and forth in time ultimately to their later years, as they gather at the end of one of the foursome’s life. The men are college English teachers trying to get published and promoted, with varying degrees of success. The women are housewives as was typical of the time period, and they do have children, although the kids are mostly an afterthought in the narrative until the end.

What drives the story is the beguiling and maddening character of Charity Lang. She is what you’d call a “force of nature,” a whirlwind of energy, spirit, and generosity. I admired her but didn’t entirely warm to her, although I suppose if she’d taken me under her wing as she did the Morgans, I would probably always be in her debt and her thrall. You see, the Morgans are poor, and the Langs are wealthy. But somehow that doesn’t really come between the two couples as much as you might think it would. There are equalizers, such as Larry Morgan’s more successful writing career. There is more conflict between Charity and Sid over his stalled career than there is any conflict between the couples.

This is a quiet novel, but rich in character and detail. Deep friendship and the complicated bonds of marriage are the themes, as well as a meditation on what makes a life well lived. Reading this in such a precarious, anxiety-inducing time as this was a balm to the soul. As Pauline astutely noted, the characters feel very far away from the cares of the world in the book, although serious events occur. If you’ve never tried Stegner before I would highly recommend this one, especially if you like character-driven, thoughtful, but not overly padded, novels.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Format: owned paperback

See my Classics Club list here.

24 thoughts on “Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Classics Club & Buddy Read)

  1. My parents went to Madison for graduate school and made friends with another couple in academia there, who remained friends with them for their entire lives. I might like reading this.

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  2. This sounds like quite a gentle novel over all, and I’m beginning to think the power of such fiction should not be underestimated at this time. I might check it out to see what I make of this author.

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  3. Lovely review, Laila! I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of Wallace Stegner – clearly a mistake I should put right. As other commenters have said, there’s something to be said for the quieter style of novel in these anxious days. Which would you recommend most – this or Angle of Repose?

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  4. He is an author I’ve wanted to read for a long time too. Both of these are on my TBR. And I also remember reading something (in a book about the Canadian west by either Sharon Butala or Candace Savage, both of whom have written about landscape and memory and bloodshed – massacres of indigenous people in particular, in Geography of Blood or in The Perfection of the Morning, both terrific) which raised the question of how he perpetuated the myths surrounding colonization of the west (overlooking the fact that indigenous peoples have long inhabited those “discovered” lands). I mention this only because at the time I wished that I had already read Stegner, so that I could better understand what was being said, so maybe the idea will resonate with you or arouse your curiosity!

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    1. I can see that he would be a product of his time, and probably did participate in perpetuating those myths. This particular book is so set in the Midwest and east coast that it doesn’t figure in at all, but certainly his more Western set works would make a reader grapple with those ideas.

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      1. I think the reason that it stood out to me is that apparently he is a major figure in the part of Saskatchewan that these two women inhabit and love. IIRC, there is even a museum dedicated to him there, or maybe it’s one of those informal pilgrimage sites, like L.M. Montgomery’s homes in Ontario (even though she’s better known in another region too, like Stegner isn’t really thought of as having anything to do with Saskatchewan for most people). I’m definitely curious!

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