Wallace Stegner avoided subjects that seem to attract most American novelists. Not for him were the suburban infidelities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol and drugs, the hatreds, and lust for power. Instead, his high-toned works feature civilized and intelligent characters – decent, gracious, compassionate and cultivated persons. Typically his characters live quiet lives. Stegner’s 1987 novel, Crossing to Safety, traces the lifelong friendship of two college professors and their wives.
Weaving through the rich tapestry of his narrative are strong threads of insights – themes that underpin the novel. For example, there is idea that fate often fails to conform to the dreams of man, and there is the belief that the idealism of youth contrasts markedly to the disappointments and compromises life invariably inflicts. And there is the realization that the “smallest pebble on the track can derail us.”
During the Depression, the book’s narrator, Larry Morgan, begins teaching in Madison, at the University of Wisconsin. He is a fledgling but talented fiction writer forced to work out of necessity. As the novel opens he and his wife Sally meet Sid Lang, another junior professor, and his wife Charity. Clearly, fortune has favored the Langs, bestowing on them intelligence, breeding and old-family money. From the start the friendship is reciprocally nourishing and soon strengthens with the glue of mutual affection.
The four enjoy vacations together at the Lang’s summer home in Vermont, and it is during one of these carefree adventures that Sally is stricken with polio. Without a doubt this tragedy is a reversal of the reader’s expectation, but she has been portrayed in such a way that the initial surprise is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability. Predictably, the Langs generously provide moral and monetary support. Though Sally is moderately disabled – she must wear leg braces and use two crutches to walk – the foursome continues to seek cultural experiences and to pursue diverse nature settings. They even share a year together in Italy. Each of the four, while in Florence, experiences an epiphany about human virtue and knowledge. “We all hitched our wagons to the highest stars we could find,” Writes Stegner.
Musing about the stay in Florence Larry thinks:
“I suppose we all wanted out of Florence corroboration of things we already believed…we wanted contact in the most particular and sensuous ways, and we lived at a pitch of sensibility that was probably absurd. Given earlier chances, we would not have been such super-tourists. Being what we were, we seized whatever we could. Every excursion was an adventure, and excursions were almost as common as sunrises.”
Perhaps the primary achievement of the novel is Stegner’s portrayal of Charity Lang, the essential link in the foursome’s chain of connection. She is arrogant, bossy, and a bully to her passive, “good guy” husband; she is, at the same time, kind, relentlessly enthusiastic, courageous, and an example of “grace under pressure.” She is easy to talk to because she makes others talk about themselves. She is the only person, besides Larry, whom Sally allows to help with her braces. Charity is both the dominant force and the source of strain in the Lang-Morgan group.
This is a novel that resonates long after its final sentence with the acknowledgement that enduring love is proof of a good life. And other concepts, which Stegner so eloquently formulates, too, remain with us: “the bitter implacability of fate,” “addiction and dependence in marriage,” and “memory reports plausibly but not necessarily truly.”