Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

I have to admit that I had never heard of Wallace Stegner before I picked up this book in a recent library booksale. I bought it purely because it’s a Penguin Classic so I thought it would be interesting. I haven’t read any reviews of the book at all and I think that the whole thing was so close to a lot of my life experiences that I’m really unable to be detached from it. It’s a really well written book, as you would expect from a Pullitzer prize winner.

For me it was quite an annoying and uncomfortable read at times and that was due entirely to the character of Charity Lang whom I really, really disliked intensely so it wasn’t a book which I was desperate to get back to whenever I put it down.

It’s the story of two marriages from the 1930s when they were almost newly weds and the two couples become friends when they meet at the University of Wisconsin where the husbands are working. University politics hasn’t changed over the years, it was still a murky, distasteful business when I was in almost exactly the same situation with my husband in the late 1970s.

Anyway Charity and Sid Lang cling to the new arrivals Sally and Larry Morgan like they’re a life raft, almost as soon as they meet and from my experience that’s always a sign of an unhealthy marriage so it rang alarm bells. There’s always a problem in a relationship when they want to spend a lot of time with other people rather than just being happy in their own compmany. Obviously you have to have give and take in any marriage but Charity was only interested in taking – and the only things she gave were orders. Oh and Sid’s money of course. Charity really wasn’t interested in Sid until she realised that he was ‘as rich as Croesus.

Sally is bedazzled by Charity mainly because Charity comes from an old, large, well-heeled American family which is the opposite from Sally’s situation as a young woman from a poor Greek family who are all dead. Charity fills Sally’s need for friends and family and so she overlooks the fact that Charity is a truly ghastly woman who has to be right about everything, even although she’s invariably wrong, she won’t ever admit to it and just about all the bad things which happen in the book are caused by Charity.

The absolutely worst thing though is the way Charity treats Sid. He was never going to set the heather on fire but Charity had great expectations for him and when things didn’t go to her plan, which was entirely her fault for being arrogant and directing what Sid should write papers on to get tenure, and of course she was wrong – she didn’t dust herself down and get on with life the way the rest of us would. Charity ended up having a nervous break-down and spent two months in hospital. Those so-called strong women usually can’t cope with life when they don’t get their own way as it happens to them so seldom.

In the end it’s Larry who saves Sid by getting him a job at another university. The book is written from Larry’s perspective but long before it becomes clear that Larry isn’t a fan of Charity I was gnashing my teeth as she was praised to the sky while she was embarking on her mission of festooning herself with loads of kids which she thought it was a good idea to neglect. Just think, all those other lives for her to control, bully and dominate.

I’m sure you’ll realise that I have had close contact with just such a woman in the past and it isn’t fun having to stand by and watch someone humiliate and emasculate her husband in public, hen-pecked doesn’t come close to describing it. The damage done to family members by such a mother is never healed.

In the book Charity decides to continue to control her childrens’ lives from the grave via her will and even draws up a list of women which Sid has to choose a new wife from as apparently he can’t cope on his own!

Happily I can tell you exactly what happens in such a case. The widower takes up a new pastime, such as bowls. Meets up with all the old boys that he went to school with. Joins a club for local businessmen and goes on holiday abroad with them three or four times a year and really enjoys himself. Has two more grandsons presented to him by the members of the family who had watched the older grandchildren being scarred by Granny’s bad behaviour.

Thinks for himself for the first time in years!

Well I did tell you that I was unable to be detached from it, but it is a good book!

8 thoughts on “Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

  1. Your review grabbed my attention because I just read Angle of Repose by Stegner and was wondering what his other books were like. It sounds like the subject matter of marriage is similar.

    • Shelley,
      Flip – or words to that effect! I thought that most people would have read this book already, I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you. I must try to get Angle of Repose, that’s obviously the one that most people have read.

  2. I was fascinated by your post because I read this book four (!) years ago and I had to read my review to refresh my memory about what I thought at the time! I thought it was a beautiful book. I’d already read his earlier book Angle of Repose, which I loved. It obviously hit a nerve with you and I didn’t have the same reaction to Charity, although I saw that ambition ruled her life.

    I hope you don’t mind me quoting a bit of my own post, but this is what I thought about it:

    ‘As well as the low points of their lives the novel also recounts the happy and joyful experiences the couples encounter. The novel explores the complexity of human nature and meditates on the drama of everyday experience in quiet “ordinary” situations – the stuff of life, how to live through the difficulties that life and death throw in all our paths. Most poignant, to me at least, are the descriptions of how the couples deal with ambition, the disappointments of failed ambition, illness and death.’

    I borrowed the book from the library, otherwise I could look at it again in the light of your comments.

    • Margaret,
      I wouldn’t call it a beautiful book but I suppose if you don’t have experience of a person like Charity then the negatives of her personality won’t jump out at you. I think that if the roles had been reversed then people would have been shouting that it was a book about an abused wife. Charity punished Sid his whole life because he wasn’t the successful husband that she had planned and Sid is so downtrodden he can’t even admit what a miserable time he has had over the years. I don’t think there are many marriages like that now and I’ve even known people to ‘leg it’ when a spouse becomes seriously ill!

  3. I’ve only read Angle of Repose, but I loved that one. I’ve been meaning to read more Stegner, but I don’t know if this will be my next choice.

    In my mind, I associate Wallace Stegner with Frank Norris, but I’m not sure why. I think they’re both Western American writers, with Norris being a little earlier than Stegner. I read Norris’s The Octopus, about the conflict between wheat growers and the railroad in California, and liked it very much

    • Joan,
      For some reason I thought most people had read the book, obviously I got it mixed up with Angle of Repose. Other people might not find Charity to be such an unlikeable character but to me she was manipulative and abusive.

      I haven’t heard of Frank Norris, I’ll have to see if my library has any of his.

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