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Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

At the beginning of December I wrote a review about The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. Will Schwalbe and his mother read many books over the course of time, and the first book of the many discussed was Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.

Crossing to Safety is a novel that tells the story of life of Larry and Sally Morgan, and their great friends Sid and Charity Lang. The two couples meet when the husbands are embarking on their careers as professors, when they are all beginning to have children, at a time when they have dreams and ambitions about where their lives will go – that time in life when everything seems possible.

There is a disparity between the couples that they are careful not to allow to tarnish their relationship – the Langs are wealthy, the Morgans are not. But, as Larry Morgan achieves more success as both a professor and a writer than his friend Sid, this difference lessens but is never forgotten.

We meet Larry Morgan, our narrator, in 1972 as he and his wife arrive in Vermont, at the home of the Langs. As Larry looks out at the landscape he thinks about the journey he has just taken, and thinks that the journey really began in 1927 when, they were newly arrived in Madison, Wisconsin to begin their careers as professors, with a desire to make their mark on the world as writers.

The battle cry, of both Stegner and his characters, is “They mought of killed us but they ain’t whuuped us”. As I read Crossing to Safety I was mindful of the fact that I am now the age that these characters were in 1972. Like Sally and Larry, and Sid and Charity I have lived a life, experienced a long marriage, raised children, have the great pleasure of grandchildren in my life, and the presence of close friends of 40 years and more. As Larry Morgan observes early in the novel, “we expected to leave a mark on the world. Instead, the world has left marks on us.”

At the end of the novel, after some difficult recent days, and the memories of the long past, Larry wonders, “If we could have foreseen the future during those good days in Madison where all this began, we might not have had the nerve to venture into it.” But, of course they did, as we all do. We make a life with what comes our way, we do our best for ourselves and those we love. And that is what this novel is all about, the love between a husband and a wife and what really goes on inside a marriage, and friends who are family in all the important ways. As you read about Larry and Sally and Sid and Charity, about being in love when you are young, having children, the successes and failures in life, the relationships along the way, you cannot help but think of your own life.

Reading the introduction and the afterword to the novel, the reader quickly realizes that Crossing to Safety is somewhat autobiographical. Wallace Stegner and his wife owned homes in Vermont and in California. Born in 1909, Wallace Stegner died in an automobile accident in 1993. He started writing fiction and non-fiction in the 1930’s while a graduate student at the University of Iowa. A professor all of his working life, he wrote short stories for magazines, novels and non-fiction. Stegner taught creative writing at Stanford from 1946 to 1971, and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference every summer. In fact he taught at the University of Toronto in 1975. He was awarded 3 Guggenheim Fellowships. Stegner called writers, “the great community of recorded human experience.”

Stegner also lived for a time in both Grand Falls, Montana and Saskatchewan as does (coincidentally?), Richard Ford’s character in his novel Canada. I was struck by the similarities between Wallace Stegner’s life and Richard Ford’s character, Dell Parsons, both sons of unfortunate fathers, boys (and later men) who had to make their own way without the assistance of family. Not knowing if their paths crossed, although I imagine they must have, I wonder if there may be some homage to Wallace Stegner in Richard Ford’s novel.

I was struck, as I am so often, by the fact that I always learn so much from reading fiction, it is truly life long learning. Reading Crossing to Safety was a delight. Always wondering about where the title comes from, I discovered that Crossing to Safety comes from the following poem by Robert Frost, a close friend to Wallace Stegner,

“I could give all to Time except - except What I myself have held. But why declare The things forbidden that while the Customs slept I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There And what I would not part with I have kept.”

Best wishes for the New Year.

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