Monday, September 15, 2008

Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

This is the 2nd Stegner book I've read (the first being Angle of Repose), and I think I liked this one even better. Stegner writes beautiful prose, even when dealing with rather grim circumstances, as in this book. One also senses a deeper undercurrent of meaning than just the surface plot. Both of these things kept me reading through some pretty agonizing events in the characters' lives.

The book relates the tale of one family, in the early 1900's, attempting to make a go of it in the American (and Canadian) West. The husband/father is always chasing after the one great deal that will put them on easy street, consequently the family is constantly uprooted and experiences some pretty tough times. They go from city to city, looking for the pot of gold, and never finding it. When they do manage to find a pretty good thing, it's never quite good enough, so off they go again.

Not only are their economic circumstances rough, but the family dynamics are also quite hard. The father is somewhat abusive, and the mother 'stands by her man' throughout most of it. (Though one point, when his abuse moves beyond verbal and becomes physical to one of the boys, she finally puts her foot down.) I was often torn between admiration for the strength of her love for him, and disappointment, that she did keep trying to make it work, when clearly he was never going to change. But Stegner never portrays the father as wholly bad or evil, and we can see what drives this character to do the things he does.

I think this book is really about the 'great American dream' of making it rich, and how chasing such a dream is ultimately destructive. It's also about the loss of a way of life, when the West became tamed and 'civilized', and there was no more room for the free-roaming pioneer spirit. For a certain type of person, this was the loss of one's very soul.

I found this book to get better and better, as the big picture became clearer. The characters are portrayed as very real, and there are heartbreaking scenes. Yet I was still engrossed in the book, staying up way too late many nights!

This is not an easy book to read, but Stegner is an important American writer, dealing with the West, and this book is well worth the read.

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