BY ERIC MARKOWSKY

This book has been chosen as a Great Read

Author: Wallace Stegner

1938

Filed Under Literary, Historical, Western

A friend of mine loaned me The Big Rock Candy Mountain as the capstone to a conversation about Great American Novels.  Wallace Stegner is an author I’d heard a lot about but never read.  As a novice, I was a little intimidated by the bulk of the book.  My friend assured me it was well worth the 563 page commitment.  And it was.  That and more.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain is an American saga about the trials of the Mason family. Set against the historical sweep of the early 20th century, the closing of the West, the First World War, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression, Bo Mason leads his wife and sons in the reckless pursuit of their fortune, leaving his wife Elsa to salvage a life for all of them in the margins of her husband’s endless ambitions.

Reading at times like a western romance, at others like a hardboiled thriller, and finally as a modernist family tragedy, this epic offers a stylistic survey of a century of American letters.  The prose is simple, rarely calling attention to itself, but always worth a little further consideration.  The sentences unwind, like the narrative, slowly, leading to observations about memory that redeem the long road you took to get there:

Memory was a trap, a pit, a labyrinth.  It tricked you into looking backward, and you saw yourself in another avatar, smaller and more narrow-visioned, but richer in the life of the senses, and in that incarnation too you were looking back.

The worst I can say about The Big Rock Candy Mountain is that it’s episodic.  Because it’s a slow sort of book, it can take a while to pick up steam again from one section to the next.  This would be less of an issue if the heights of the action weren’t so compelling; at times, the falling action feels more like crashing.  But each section boasts its own returns, and all the sections are interwoven with thematic threads, about gender and family and loss and inheritance, that unite the episodes into one complete portrait of a country, once wild, settling into a new mold.

Similar reads: Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner), The Way West (A.B. Guthrie Jr.), Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)

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