Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

1930s Two Couples Eating Picnic Lunch Beside Camping Trailer

This is the story of two marriages and a powerful friendship that binds them. Larry Morgan narrates; in the real time of the novel, he is in his sixties, and staying with his wife Sally at the Vermont home of their lifelong friends Sid and Charity Lang. They have not seen each other for several years; the Morgans now live in New Mexico, and Sally, disabled from polio, struggles to travel far. However, as we find out within the first few pages, this is not a joyful reunion. The Morgans have been summoned because Charity is dying, and this is a last chance for them to be together in a place where they share so many happy memories. Larry finds himself meditating on the life they have shared as he walks through the grounds of the house that has not changed since they were twentysomethings back in the 1930s. Starting from the beginning of their friendship in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, he tells the story of his own marriage, that of Sid and Charity’s, and of a friendship that sustained across half a century as all four navigated their paths through lives that turned out to be very different from their youthful dreams.

What makes this novel so utterly engrossing and so desperately moving is that each of these four adults are so real, and the problems they face as they journey through life and find it far from what they had hoped cannot fail to strike a chord with anyone who reads their stories. Ostensibly this novel is about what it means to be human; what it means to love, to lose, to try, to fail, to dream, to hope, to strive. It shows that what really sustains us is not the things we do but the relationships we form. To be loved, understood and accepted, despite your flaws, are ultimately the most fulfilling and life altering of experiences that will be treasured far more than any financial or career success. Larry discovers this as he tells the story of the friendship that has altered the course of his life, and as both he and the reader come to realise just how much they all mean to one another, and what a hole Charity’s death will leave behind, the pain of knowing what must come is unbearable.

Wallace Stegner’s writing is exquisite, and his ability to convey the essence of humanity and the power of friendship in this deceptively simple, humble tale is astounding. This is the book I have been waiting to read all my life; the book that shows life as it really is, in all its wonder and beauty and injustice and disappointment. I felt like Stegner had seen directly into my soul with every word he wrote. I will never forget Crossing to Safety; it is one of the best books I have ever read, written by a man I wish I had known. If you’ve never read this, you need to, now. It’s one to take with you through every stage of life; a wise, beautiful, knowing insight into the human soul, and how glorious it is to love and be loved.

38 comments

  1. What a great review. I was born in Wisconsin, lived there for 5 years and still have friends who live there. Will be searching for a copy now.

  2. ” . . . this novel is about what it means to be human; what it means to love, to lose, to try, to fail, to dream, to hope, to strive. It shows that what really sustains us is not the things we do but the relationships we form.” Perfectly crafted, Rachel, and a stellar review.

    Crossing to Safety is one of my favorite novels. Having now read your review, I feel as if I want, no, need to read it once more. Wallace Stegner was a gifted writer and this was about his best. You might like Angle of Repose at some point.

    Perfect photo to accompany your review.

    I wish I was young again, Rachel, and that you were to be my literature teacher.

  3. This book seems to be very much the flavour of the year for book clubs, here in Australia. And what a wonderfully well written book it is too. How come it has not been brought to our attention before, at least outside of the USA. Stegner is indeed a gifted writer. I also enjoyed reading Angle of Repose, which I believe won a Pulitzer prize, but Crossing is my favourite. A must read.

    1. Oh really? How wonderful that it’s having a renaissance! I want to read Stegner’s other novels too. I think a lot of American writers don’t get much publicity outside of the US, which is a real shame. I am looking forward to exploring more America literature this year.

  4. Have read 5 of Stegner’s novels and the only one that falls short is his first “Remembering Laughter” though still a nice little story and very interesting to see what his later greater stories developed from. His writing is amazing and he also taught and influenced many great American writers, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Ken Kesey among others. So glad you experienced his rich and true prose.

  5. What an outstanding review! I had not read this (I read Angle of Repose – more into Stegner’s essays & work & University of Utah). I’m going to have to download it and check it out. September is a great month to do so. Thank you for your thoughts!

    1. It really was! I didn’t want to say too much in the review but I think the female characters are very interesting. Charity more so than Sally, because she has such a strong and intriguing personality. I found it particularly interesting that the friendships weren’t equal – Larry and Charity certainly wouldn’t have been friends as individuals. The dynamics are fascinating.

  6. I think this is possibly my favourite book ever. The power of his writing left me breathless. One of those rare books that is a privilege to read.

      1. Most in my reading group said they wanted to turn around and read it again right away – most said they would read it again, if not now, sometime in the future.

  7. What an extraordinary writer and what a wonderful book. Thank you so much,Rachel, for recommending it! I had never even heard of Wallace Stegner and it makes me really happy to have come upon this book and the possibility to discover more written by him. Thanks again for your good hints and for keeping us inspired!

  8. This was the first Stegner book I read, and one of the best books I’ve ever read in all my life. A compelling story by a master of his craft.

  9. This is the first time I’ve ever read a review – online or elsewhere – and immediately purchased the book in question. I’ve never heard of Wallace Stegner, but your review makes me want to. Thank you!

  10. very much enjoyed what you had to say about one of my favorite books. it is truly exquisite – i wrote a short piece for Narrative Magazine on the book. thanks for highlighting it – and doing such a wonderful job! It’s meaningful to me that, after a lifetime writing about the west, he chose to locate his final novel in Greensboro Vermont – where he eventually had his ashes scattered. In any case – I’m doing my best to follow in his footsteps, and actually lucked into a fellowship named after him. it’s a pleasure to see others spread the good word. thanks for your great site!

  11. I have just read and reviewed this and agree totally … I read Stegner’s Angle of repose in the mid 1990s and absolutely adored it. I bought this around that time, but have only just got to read it with my reading group. Everyone in our group loved it and one said, like you, it’s one of the best books she’s ever read.

  12. Just discovered this book. WOW! And your review is SO, SO right on!! Copied so many passages into my journal. LOVE this book. And I’m impressed that YOU love it! You are so young, yet obviously VERY wise and discerning!!

  13. An incredibly rich and moving book, and your review is accurate, evocative and lovely. I have rarely been moved to tears by a book, but this one did it for me. And Larry’s thoughts of the continuation of life through physical matter were exquisite, I want to remember them for my final days! Although it would have changed the structure and tone, I would have loved to have known Sally and Charity better, to have had a chapter of two told from their personal perspective rather than Larry’s analysis of them and their motivations. Sid was also fascinatingly complex. BTW, the image you use with your review is almost exactly as I envisaged the characters! Was there a movie of the book? Is this a still from it?

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