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.

Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell

timewilldarkenit

This is one of those books that is very difficult to write about. It tells a story in which ‘nothing’ really happens, and yet, as we all know, it is the nothings of life that take on the most meaning, though they will leave no trace once we are gone. Time, as the title says, will darken all that was once light. It will cover our tracks, it will dull our experiences, it will blacken and tarnish our memories until everything that once was so vibrant and real and important becomes obscured in the mists of the never ceasing march of days and months and years that eventually swallow all of our lives. As such, summarising what happens to the cast of this novel during the long, innocent days of a summer before World War One is a struggle, because everything that does happen is largely insignificant and unrecordable, yet loaded with an emotional power that will go on to change all of their lives.

During the long, hot summer of 1912, the Kings host their ‘cousins’ the Potters for an extended visit. They have never met before; Mr Potter is the son of the man who loosely adopted Austin King’s now dead father, and Austin, always a man determined to do the right thing by everybody, cannot refuse when the Potters write to suggest a family gathering. Mr and Mrs Potter arrive from Mississippi with their teenage children, Randolph and Nora, and enough luggage to last them for several weeks. Martha, Austin’s beautiful, capricious and deeply unhappy wife, is a reluctant hostess; newly pregnant, having guests is the last thing she wants, and she resents Austin for imposing his relations upon her. However, the gregarious Potters soon endear themselves to everyone in the Kings’ small Illinois town, bringing a touch of Southern glamour to the familiar routines of the dusty summer. They preen and flatter, and hint at a lifestyle of exotic ease that the staid Northern women cannot even imagine. They are like something from a fairytale.

However, the Potters are not all they seem, and soon the repercussions of their visit will begin to have devastating consequences. Austin, caught up in being the man his famous father was, is unable to respond to the emotional demands of his wife, as well as the naive, impulsive, searching Nora, who sees in Austin the answer to all of her prayers. He also can’t put a stop to Mr Potter’s attempts to embroil the men of Drapersville into a get rich quick scheme, agreeing to take legal responsibility for it. The visit from his cousins manages to reveal all of the fault lines in Austin King’s seemingly perfect life. Both his marriage to a woman who he fails to see doesn’t love him and his ailing law firm that he runs along the same lines as his father because he is too afraid to step out from his shadow begin to buckle under the weight of the Potters’ presence. By the time the Potters leave at the end of the summer, nothing will be the same, but little does Austin know that the true repercussions of their visit are just beginning.

There is so much complexity to this novel, so many fascinating characters through whom Maxwell explores a multitude of facets of life and humanity and the humdrum society of small town America at the turn of the century. There are hormonal teenagers, desperately miserable spinsters, controlling mothers, unhappy wives, philandering young husbands and forgotten old men, all whiling away their lives in stuffy drawing rooms and starlit porches, waiting for something miraculous to happen. There is so much yearning, so much pain, so much regret in these pages; a deep sadness for a generation of people without the freedom or bravery to break away from the expectations placed upon them by their society. When I closed the pages, I was struck dumb for a while, thinking about what would go on to happen to these people who seemed so desperately throbbing with life. I’m still wondering now, thanks to the perfect, deliberately inconclusive ending. There are no easy answers, no neatly tied up endings. Such is life.¬†This is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read; beautiful, maddening and thought provoking, I know I’ll go back to it again and again. If you’ve never tried any William Maxwell, you really are missing out.