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Ten years ago I picked up this novel, read through the first couple of chapters, uttered an, "ugh" and moved on--with serious doubts regarding the tastes of the friend that recommended the read. (In hindsight and looking at some of my own choices, I understand whose taste was questionable.) Forward ten years--I find myself wondering if this novel I've been glued to the last 3 days is the same book I plodded through years ago.
I recently saw a documentary on Wallace Stegner, produced in 2009 at the request of then Utah Governor, Jon Huntsman, whom declared Feb. 18th, '09, Wallace Stegner Day in Utah (Stegner lived in Utah and graduated from the University of Utah). It was out of curiosity, not native pride (I'm a transplant) that I purchased this Stegner novel. Same book--very different eyes and ears. Awarded the Pulitzer in '72, on the *Top 100* and *Most Important* books of the century, by an author referred to as the "conscience of the conservation movement," nonetheless considered overlooked, underrated, controversial, and (piously) snubbed.
For retired historian Lyman Ward, a window to the past becomes ominously reflective as he looks into the history of his grandparents and sees his own possible future. The text resourcefully splices together the actual letters of 19th century author and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote with a fictional story-in-a-story of marriage, expectations, exploration, art, and the conquest of the wild unforgiving west. The letters--the blasted wonderful letters that caused such controversy--are the framework for the story, and add an authentic Victorian flourish, so polar to the rough ungentrified country west of the Mississippi. Hallock's missives are an incredible record of the times, a timeline entwining Geronimo terrorizing the west with Emily Dickinson writing her poetry, Twain publishing Huckleberry Finn, Winslow Homer painting, Wyatt Earp keeping law and order in Tombstone. They also reflect the contrasts of the changing times: the elite artists and writers of the eastern states--the rugged west and the toughened adventurers; the dreams of an aspiring artist/genteel lady--the harsh realities of life in the west; the exploitation of the land--the uncommon insight of conservation. But, it took Stegner's beautiful writing to create this unforgettable depiction of the raw frontier and the colorful characters that fought for every inch of conquest; it is his words, not the regrettful ponderings of Hallock, that create this generational quest to find balance and grace. The controversy and snub that resulted from Stegner using the letters seem a moot point to me when presented with such a beautiful novel. Stegner acknowledged using the letters, and openly stated he had the permission of the descendant that turned the letters over to him to do so. (I doubt Leonardo's critic's thought him less an artist because Mona was uncannily mysterious and beautiful).
The novel hasn't changed in 10 years, but my appreciation of it has; it is now a favorite. Sometimes it is better to be told a story than it is to read a story. The audio version was perfection for this book; the characters came alive, the West was vivid and enticing, and I was captivated.
62 of 66 people found this review helpful
as opposed to courtship. This is a fairly profound extended meditation on marriage, civilized behavior, temptation, forgiveness, and redemption. The controversy over the usage of Mary Hallock Foote's letters gets even more blurred in the audio version since it's impossible to know where or when anything is in quotation marks. It's an amazing evocation of American life in the 1870s and 1880s, and a reminder of what is universal in all our lives and relationships. It's fascinating to be reminded that so many of the things in this book actually happened. It's also a time-capsule of what life was like circa 1970; a reminder of how things were different and how much hasn't really changed at all. So much so-called historical fiction depends upon trying to invent a narrative and half-baked characters over a framework of historical events. This book is different. Every character rings true. Every reaction and feeling rings true. And Stegner is smart enough not to try to explain things that cannot be explained. Therein lies the work of the reader.
11 of 11 people found this review helpful
This was a sad, wee tale of a man and wife in the 1870s. The wife always feels she has married beneath herself and no matter what the husband does, it always seems to be the wrong thing. As a result, they are often left with large absences in their marriage as the husband lives far off to earn a decent wage.
It was difficult who to feel sympathy for as the wife was often openly ashamed of her husband's lower status and the husband always seemed to be getting involved in schemes that lost money. Personally, I felt sorry for the husband, he knew how the wife felt and could do not right, despite working terribly hard. Sad, but a good listen.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
What a masterpiece. Excellent narration. This is now on my list of top 10 favourite books.