Book Review: CROSSING TO SAFETY, by Wallace Stegner

It hadn't occurred to me how many desolate, depressing books I'd been reading lately until I got into CROSSING TO SAFETY and discovered, near the end of the first chapter, that the book is about friendship. Even though bad things might happen in a book about friendship, people still retain some semblance of hope that, somehow, stuff will be okay. I found this immediately heartening. Books about friendship don't generally contain words like "abyss" or phrases like "soul of man." They don't end on a note that leaves you shaken to the core of your very "dark soul" and uncertain how you'll be able to go on in such a merciless, empty world.

In this way, CROSSING TO SAFETY met a need that I didn't even know I had. It is also really, really, REALLY damn good. After The Big Rock Candy Mountain, I was effectively won over by Stegner, but after this? He has been vaulted to the land of Favorite Authors: installed, with much praise and adoration, among the ranks of Salinger, McEwan and Tolkien, and CROSSING TO SAFETY added to the List of Books I Command You To Read (though you may disobey my command, it really is your loss).

One of the big appeals, to me, of CROSSING TO SAFETY is that it addresses one of those tragically underrepresented groups in literature: the happily married couple. Of course, this is just my humble, early-wed, hugely biased opinion, but really, how many books are there dedicated to rocky marriages, books whose strongest conflict lies between the two main characters? (The Big Rock Candy Mountain is one of these.) And how many books end with a wedding, as though getting to the altar was the most exciting part of the characters' whole dumb lives? (I am particularly bitter toward that last category, and that is why I can't stand romantic comedies.)

Now, I say "happily" mainly to signify that our married characters are not throwing lamps and trashcans at each other throughout the story--of course there will be conflict, and they will occasionally (if the story is at all believable) be on opposite sides of the conflict, but mostly our married heroes will support each other, standing stubbornly side by side. They will suffer hardship together, say encouraging things to each other, and will also say brutally honest things when times call for it; in this sort of marriage, there is an awful lot of conversation, and I suppose this is the boring aspect of the tale that leaves them underwritten--either these couples tend to stand blandly by as more interesting, single characters steal the show, or they resort to throwing things for the sake of creating narrative tension.

Pah. Stegner creates plenty of tension without resorting to that. CROSSING TO SAFETY is the sort of book that sounds boring in summary--something like "chronicles the enduring friendship of the Langs and Morgans, through such hardships as blah blah blah"--but it is beautiful, refreshing and sad. I, an incurable speedreader, found myself not wanting to read this book so that I would not finish it so soon. I drew it out, page by page, and that is the most sparkling praise I can offer: I did not want to finish this book. I really didn't.


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