Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This often quiet yet always illuminated and powerful novel is a masterpiece examining the lifelong struggle of two couples as they come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life.

Re-released last year almost in tandem with that other forgotten American classic John Williams’ ‘Stoner’, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the two. Both are prime stylistic examples of latter 20th century American fiction, both concern the lives of academics and both are lead by the trials of married life. However where Williams’ title character succumbs to his depressingly downwards trajectory, Stegner’s protagonists are discerned by their enduring hope in life and love, drawing strength from the everyday catastrophes that consume so many. As Stegner’s last novel, published at age 78, it is written with the careful wisdom of age yet with all the hungry eagerness of a début.

Although being only 10 years younger than Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, Stegner writes for a whole new generation of Americans. Dispensing with the fantasies which those writers evoke, whether it is romance, masculinity or wealth, Stegner instead charms the fantastic elements from a common life. He speaks for an America of fading ideals and reemerging trust in the natural, the familial and personal. Stegner has the delicacy to endue his prose with meticulous discussions of the topics, such as race and class, which dominate the American consciousness almost surreptitiously. The clues, like Sally’s Greek heritage or Sid’s new money upbringing, are there for those readers who want them but are in no way integral to the books appreciation.

This is not a novel centred on social concepts or a cultural allegory, but instead it is a story of real people who affect and so are affected by the world around them. The protagonists are real in the biographical sense that they are drawn from life and also that they are drawn with such clarity and piquancy as to make them entirely recognizable and relatable. With Stegner’s masterful prose the personal struggles of both the Lang and Morgan families grow to become representative of perennial struggles for dependence and independence, success, satisfaction, security and love.

Stegner perfectly synopsises the youthful anticipation and ambition in chapter two: “In a way, it is beautiful to be young and hard up. With the right wife, and I had her, deprivation became a game…the world’s most contented couple is composed of the young professor and his wife, in love, employed, at the bottom of a depression from which it is impossible to fall further…”.

In his guise as Creative Writing instructor Stegner throughout his life promoted the value in and power of writing fiction as a personal catharsis and as an agent of social development. With this in mind, ‘Crossing to Safety’ is perhaps his greatest contribution to American culture and his greatest legacy to future generations who find themselves struggling with the same moral dilemnas as himself, his characters, his peers and his students. Now it is published rightfully as part of Penguin’s Modern Classics collection, this is a novel of too great a magnitude to let fall between the cracks.

Lawrence Hodgkinson – St. Pancras bookseller


£8.99 and in stock

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